Are Websites Dead?

During an old fashioned face to face meeting last week, I received a curious question.  With a bold look forward, and nary a nod to the intricate network of online tools that has grown-up over the past ten years,  my conversation partner asked, "Aren't websites dead?"  As a practical matter, he wanted to know whether his organization should consider replacing its website with social media and free tools?"  His query was a striking reminder of the pace of change we seem to take for granted every day.

Indeed, I have lately heard much buzz about replacing website functionality with links to third party services like Volunteerspot, Eventbrite, Network For Good, Slideshare, Flickr and YouTube.  It is impressive how major social networking sites (Facebook and LinkedIn) have found ways to offer increasingly powerful features that, in some ways, match what websites can do, and  I have not doubt that a good crowdsourcing activity could think identify dozens of other inexpesive or free, service providers poised to augment what individuals can do online. 

With a vast and growing landscape of powerful and free tools now available, it is an interesting time to ask whether the time, trouble and expense of building a website is worthwhile.  Nevertheless, despite advances, I do not believe most organizations today should chuck the website in favor of a portfolio of third party apps and services.  Third party services cannot yet integrate content and features into a cohesive web presence, nor do they provide sufficient control over an organization's content and resources.

Cohesiveness

A cohesive website offers stakeholders an unambiguous location where they can find the organization and its range of online offerings.  Loosely connected third party tools cannot provide a good enough user experience.  If stakeholders are looking for a particular kind of content, should they be expected to search the organization's blog, its Twitter feed, and its Facebook page?  A well designed website offers clear and consistent places to find information and resources -- leaving a better impression on visitors.  While Facebook and LinkedIn have tried to integrating external blog content and Twitter feeds, well designed websites are still far better at bringing together related strands of content.  A lack of connectivity between third party tools also complicates efforts to measure the success of outreach and engagement efforts  - key for making meaningful improvements.

Because it is difficult to integrate third party services into a cohesive whole, they cannot easily be sculpted to fit an organization's brand image.  It can even be difficult to maintain a consistent look and feel.  Using Facebook as an organization's home on the web with functionality provided by custom apps, may provide a modicum of consistency, but delivers an online presence that looks and operates like everybody else's fan page.  It seems that distinguishing your organization from others requires the flexibility that only a website, today, can provide.  

Control

Another important consideration in adopting third party tools is control over service availability, and intellectual property.  No matter how pervasive, privately run services -- like Facebook --  can remove your organization's web without warning or reprecussions.  Or, they could claim ownership of all content posted to the site.  Facebook tried to to do this in the spring of 2009.  Terms of service can also change.  Ning, a provider of social networking tools, recently started charging for its service (as is their right), leaving operators of well established communities to decide whether to pay, move or shutdown.  Other services, like tr.im have simply disappeared, leaving its users stranded.

Despire their limitations, I am not suggesting that social media and third party services are without value.  In fact, the capabilities they provide can be impressive. You may find Facebook to be a wonderful engagement tool that draws individuals into even deeper interactions with the organization.  You may find Twitter to be useful as a conversational or promotional tool.  Nevertheless, organizations must consider the awkwardness of third party services and social networking sites, against the ability of websites to provide a cohesive, and brand-focused,  user experience for stakeholders while maintaining control of their intellectual property and resources.