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A Website is Like a Company, and Vice-Versa. Post-Revolution,There Really is No ‘Revert’

Posted January 9th, 2012 by Andrew Goodman

You’ve been through it. Everyone you know has probably been through it, at some point.

Your website and the platform is built on are now five (or, aaaghh! seven or eight!) years old, and your website redesign and relaunch are long overdue. But what pain are you going to endure, and how much money will you spend (lose?) before you come out the “other side”?

That was the premise of our session at SES Chicago last November, “Navigating the Dip: Planning a Successful Site Relaunch” (with thanks to Seth Godin for inspiration).

It may be comforting to say to yourself “hey, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just revert to the old site, and keep on makin’ money that way.”

And in the abstract, pundits may sound very clever in advising you to keep an open mind, and to ignore sunk costs in your criteria for which strategy to pursue.

During this panel, one discussant breezily stated that you should try (using the world’s fanciest CMS?) somehow rotating the old site and the new site, slowly pecking away at the new one until it’s perfected before dropping the old.

The reality is, it doesn’t work that way.

Many companies bring a dozen reasons for relaunch to the relaunch party. In the case study I covered, the technology was so outdated and so limiting that the entrepreneur (mid-sized ecommerce company in household goods) did not relaunch because they wanted to… but because they had to.

And the same thing seems fair to state about the new Search Engine Watch, the case study Jonathan Allen cheerfully brought to the table. Take an old site that is now full of new ideas, functionality, and flair after a relaunch (with some hiccups, or major hiccups depending on who is giving the case study presentation). Even if not everything went swimmingly — even if the profit rate post relaunch got worse in the short term, for example — there’s pretty much 0% chance you’d go back to the previous site, with its old design, older way of presenting the news, and its various other outmoded elements. Can you imagine what users would say to a company that couldn’t relaunch its website in this day and age, that went back to the 12-year-old design with the old-time “binoculars” logo associated with a long-gone founder? No, sometimes you just can’t revert. You soldier on and make the new thing work, somehow.

What is truly frightening about this — the fact that, in any real world case studies of significant site relaunches, the architects of it are pretty much going “all in” on sweeping change that materially affects the business — to a great extent, you are jumping without a net. You’re contradicting the soundest of business advice (see Jim Collins, Great By Choice): “bullet, bullet, bullet, then calibrated cannonball.” A major relaunch is too much like firing your cannonballs without knowing what the result will be. With the possibility that you may find yourself out of cannonballs before you hit the target.

So, you’d better have an incredibly solid plan. And while you may be digesting many changes at once, if there are any big changes you can put off for one year, you’d better do so. Otherwise the chaos could sink you.

This puts me in mind of Google of late.

Formerly, Google was all about bullet, bullet, bullet, calibrated cannonball. That’s how they came to be so dominant in search, search ads, and display ads.

But then they went all in with Google+.

Then, they acquired Motorola.

Think it’ll be possible, if they continue to flounder in social media, to simply turn the clock back, turn off Google+, and act like nothing happened, maybe launch yet another attempt to “get social” in a year or two? No way. Google is all in with this thing.

And if the Motorola acquisition and the plans to build devices seem not to be panning out… knowing Larry Page the way we do, and how he has now become so associated with this latest phase of the company’s development… how likely is it that Google would crisply “cut bait” and change course? It seems unlikely. Rather, Google plans to stubbornly pursue a long-term plan to achieve Apple-like cult device status.

(Does all the shuttering of loose ends in the company make Larry feel “crisper,” perhaps deceptively so? I doubt the same cold-blooded attitude will be possible if some of the current strategies don’t pan out. They are too all-encompassing to be amenable to “fail-fast” tests of potential.)

Maybe this is why investors are starting to sell off Google stock. This latest round of “all in” behavior may be a noble quest from the standpoint of insiders, but it signals a change in the type of company Google is.

The strange part is, it feels like Google launched Google+ and acquired Motorola not because they wanted to, but because they had to.

Of course, the “safer” path (not doing these things, not creating a self-imposed Dip to push through) may lead to what Godin called the ‘cul-de-sac’ or ‘the cliff’. So it’s not like it would have been safer for Google to sit on their hands, to let others take those markets. You don’t always have a choice.



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