One of the things that we invariably do first with a new client or prospect, is to take a look at their existing web presence (assuming there is one) and use that as a basis for working out what we could do with it. What we generally tend to find is that there’s commonly some kind of corporate site, which may either have specific sections or sub-sites for things like events and forums.
Journals, books and other content types are typically stored as separate websites and, depending on the existing supplier, each journal may be hosted as a separate site. If blogs are involved, each of them will usually be hosted separately. There’s also likely to be a division between elibrary sites and ecommerce sites, with the former offering institutional subscription access to online content and the latter offering print sales to end users. Typically most of these sites will be hosted with different platforms, different URLs and have different designs.
By now, I’d hope that alarm bells should be ringing and probably for more than a few reasons. To begin with, this sort of arrangement is typically based on different internal departments having individual sites, so it assumes that end users have some knowledge of an organisation’s internal structure. Consequently, users end up going to different websites for reasons that probably don’t make much sense if you don’t know that Department X looks after books while Department Y looks after journals.
As the number of sites goes up and the integration between them weakens, the overall user experience becomes increasingly balkanised and brand awareness becomes increasingly diluted. Although users are primarily interested in finding content that matches their particular research interests rather than in whether the content is a journal article, an encylopedia entry or a book, they’ll still have to visit separate websites in order to find all the relevant content. If the journals are hosted separately then it may not be possible to search across them, even when all of the content belongs to a single research field. Although we know that users often find blog content more useful and informative than much traditional academic publishing content, the blogs will be yet another site the end user has to separately find out about and visit.
Then there’s the distinction between ecommerce sites and elibrary sites. Although I said above that one of these offers institutional subscription access to online content and the other offers print sales to end users, the actual situation is considerably more complicated than that as the elibrary site will usually also offer ecommerce sales for online copies of the content, thereby essentially creating two different ecommerce sites that do slightly different things. If a user searches for a particular title in Google, then both sites will come up (depending on how well optimised they are) and the user will just have to visit both of them in order to work out which one does which.
Effectively, having parallel websites of this kind creates two sets of competing websites that will act to cannibalise one another. The distinction is particularly odd when one considers that ecommerce revenues focussed on print sales will inevitably decline in coming years as sales of online content like eBooks increase, thereby creating a situation whereby the elibrary turns out to hold all the valuable ecommerce functions even though it isn’t promoted as the principal shop window for sales of that kind.
Of course, this isn’t to say that only having one website is the correct way to go either. End users are not going to want to see press releases or job vacancies in search results when they expected to see journals and books. But even there, there should be some clear navigational sign-posting to other sites that do have that information and the design and branding should persist between the sites. Finally, it’s also worth pointing out that all of this is before we even begin to consider all of the other potential touch-points there are for a publisher’s brand that will crop up in search results; a publisher’s books on Amazon and Google Books, their Twitter feeds, their Facebook pagesand their iPhone or Android apps. Faced with a bewildering set of touchpoints like these, it’s surely not unreasonable to want to help end users join up at least some of the dots.