Do You Need an Actual Web Site?

This might seem an insane question, but after reading this article about branding through unique landing pages, I started thinking about whether Web sites as we know them are becoming obsolete. I also started thinking about whether it’s possible to combine search engines with behavioral technology and content management systems to create something that works better.

Let me back up. Not all Web sites are obsolete. Sites that function as publications (like this one) make sense because they’re more than the sum of their parts. They’re made for browsing and discovering new information, not for pushing specific products or services.

The typical corporate Web site is a different story. Most of us have these kinds of sites. They’ve got “about us” sections, “portfolio/case study/customers” sections, “services” sections, perhaps even “product” sections. They’re constructed as tightly integrated packages, designed to be browsed in a certain order. Information architects carefully craft the user experience. In many ways, they’re publications about our companies, designed to provide a positive brand experience fine-tuned to what we want to tell visitors about ourselves.

Think for a minute about your own Web surfing, particularly when you’re looking for particular products or services with a search engine. What are you looking for? Something specific: a media rep, a rate card, someone to fix your sink, a pair of shoes, a gift for a friend. You need something specific, instead you must usually wade through entire Web sites to find it. You’re often frustrated because you can’t find what you’re looking for once you hit the home page. You don’t need to know everything about the company you’re dealing with, you just need to know if it can provide the product or service you need. If you’re looking for a specific thing to buy, such as a pair of shoes, you probably don’t want to learn more about “our people,” browse through the “press room,” or worse yet, verse yourself in the company’s history.

This runs counter to what most of us like to think. Our finely crafted Web sites are designed to create a total brand experience and, dang it, those users are going to experience it! But check your server logs some time: does anyone entering the site actually follow the full path you’ve constructed? Do most people read more than a page or two? Probably not.

Like it or not, how people view and use the Web is shifting. The Web was once seen as a series of linked documents or sites, but the search engines are changing the Web experience to one that’s more akin to using a database than browsing documents in a library. We query the database, find the information we’re looking for, and (hopefully) access it. We don’t read Web sites from beginning to end. We dip in, find what we’re looking for, and get out.

Once you view the Web as a database, it puts many phenomena in a new context. If the Web is a database, then bloggers are writing reports from that database. They search, find new things, and pull them out for the rest of us to see while sparing us the agony of having to find them ourselves. RSS feeds are about chunks of information — database records — and are popular because they don’t force us to go through a whole site to get them. Social media? It’s really just about people creating new relational links in the database, a hack to get around the fact that the database doesn’t really work as well as it should.

The “Web as database” concept isn’t new. It’s been the guiding vision of the Semantic Web, a brilliant (if unfortunately slightly quixotic) movement to get everyone to tag content consistently so it can be searched like the database it is. There are many reasons it hasn’t been implemented immediately, although it makes total sense — greed and desire to drive traffic being two biggies. Even so, we’re moving in that direction. Search engines improve, tagging has taken off, and search marketing is driving people to try to get their data (read “Web sites”) indexed so they can be found in the database.

From a marketing standpoint, considering the Web as a database has some major implications and explains a lot of the frustrations we all share. If the Web is a place people go to find specific chunks of information, no wonder they resist display ads: they’re irrelevant chunks of data. Behavioral targeting and contextual advertising help make them less irrelevant, so they’re effective. Search marketing, the most effective advertising strategy of all, works because it actually assists people in their queries. Done correctly, search marketing is effective because it returns better results and helps people find what they’re looking for.

Does that mean brands don’t matter and there’s no place for the kind of Web sites we build today? No. Server logs also show you the home page is almost always the most-visited page of your site because it’s a lot easier to brand a single, easy-to-remember URL.

So, yeah, you do need a Web site. But you must also recognize people increasingly using the Web as a database and get to what they want by finding your data on search engines. As the Web continues to grow and choices increase, so will this behavior.

What does the future hold? Look at comparison shopping sites as a model for what could be coming. While they’re still clunky and oriented around price, it’s not hard to imagine a search engine incorporating the same kind of functionality to help you shop. Imagine searching for “sneakers” and having Google build a custom page of just sneakers (along with descriptive and pricing data around them) from all the e-commerce sites that sell them, or maybe just from those who pay into an AdWords-like system to ensure their products show up. You search, your page builds, and before you know it you’ve built a custom store based on your search behavior and interests. Do you really care where those choices came from so long as you can trust you’ll get your stuff and get the best price?

Thinking of the Web as a database and content as discrete data records opens up a whole range of possibilities — and frightening advertising scenarios. It may be the most effective way to sell products and services isn’t through complicated sites, but through highly focused (and search optimized) landing pages designed from the ground up as database records rather than pieces of a much larger (and unread) Web site. In the future, consumers may have a much different experience than we’ve had, berrypicking (define) their way through the Web via search engines, taking a little from here and a little from there in their quest to assemble a dataset that makes sense to them.

It may be weird to think about, but it’s happening. Now. Try shifting your view of the Web and see how it looks — before you become obsolete.

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