I was going to avoid the Black Friday lines and go online to do some shopping at sears.com.  When my browser reported a “404″ error (page not found), I assumed my home Internet connection was down.  How could Sears.com be offline on one of the busiest shopping days of the year?  Quickly checking Google.com, Yahoo.com, Broadlook.com…all online, I ruled out me having a bad Internet connection.  So I tried Sears.com again and got this page:

Sears.com offline

For those IT recruiters out there: someone could use a new webmaster.

Now I am forgiving, I tried every 15 minutes and I got into the site 2 hours later.  I was catching up on emails so I had time.  I am curious how many sales they lost?  I was looking for replacement parts for my grill, so I was locked to sears.  Those people who might have been comparison shopping, I can’t see them waiting around.

This made me think about a webmasters role.  What should it be?  Should the person that let this happen be fire?  Did they get hacked? I’ve seen cases and experienced it personally when a webmaster is a hindrance to getting things done.  A webmasters role should be to execute the vision and orders of executive management.  In the case of Sears.com, I would think a good shopping experience would be paramount. Oh, and no down time. Period.  “Look kid, we go down and your fired.  This is Chicago kid-o,  lose me a million and it’s cement shoes for you.”

Downtime for a retail organization is equated to loss of business and perhaps death of business. 

The role of a webmaster at a company like sears is not all that different from a small company like Broadlook.  However the “webmaster” at sears is most likely an entire team of people.  I’ve noticed some trends.  The single and small operators maintain tight controls over their websites.  The messaging is usually concise and it reflects the founding philosophy of the company.   As a company grows to the size where a second level of management is introduced, I’ve noticed those companies move away in their core messaging.  This is to be expected, that first level of management is removing some workload from the founding executives.  There are many areas that would be better served for middle management.  Messaging is not one of them.  Later, as a company grows to have an experience executive in charge of messaging, the web messaging moves reflects the original vision or even improves on it.

Until now, I had no idea where this sears post was going.  I do now. It is sort of a self autopsy on working with my own webmaster, past and present. For me, each of my blogs is a personal journey of discovery. If they were not, then I am writing for everyone else and not myself.  I am not that giving.   This blog is for me and my discovery process, first and foremost.   If others read and get something out of it, great.  If they don’t, that’s ok because I’m learning here. 

Regarding my working with a webmaster, in the past, I failed.  My autopsy tells me that it is management’s role to convey with clarity what is expected of the webmaster and the website.  I did not do this.  That was my mistake. The same mistake that I see happening at many growing companies.  Time to change.

…So I have some ideas for both business owners and webmasters.  They are not meant to be a definitive guide, I am not qualified to put that together.  These come from personal experience and some bias.    

Small business owners

  • Own your messaging.  Once you define it concisely, then you can outsource (or in-source) the copy.
  • If you can’t write, brainstorm with someone who can.
  • Beware of “cut & paste” webmasters.  You want someone that has the original spark of creativity to create, not copy.  Ask for examples of their work.  If they all look the same (even the same graphics in some case)..run like hell.  This is the sign of the cut & paster.
  • If you are using a firm to create your website, make sure you like theirs.  I don’t understand how so many design firms literally have awful websites. 
  • If you see spelling mistakes, red flag.
  • If your webmaster tries to do all parts of a website, art, copy, coding…advise them
  • If you ask your webmaster to make a change and they give you an excuse why they can’t …fire them
  • If your webmaster modifies your messaging without consulting you…fire them
  • If your webmaster can’t give you a timetable for project completion…fire them

Webmasters

  • Use spell-check
  • Don’t try to do it all.  There are an extremely few number of people that (1) create visually appealing graphics (2) write good copy (3) develop good back end software code.  Compare yourself to the best graphic artist, writer and software engineer that you know.  How do you stack up?  You can be a tremendous project manager and not have top skills in each area.
  • Don’t learn the latest technology on your client’s time. 
  • Make sure that if the site goes down, there is a contingency plan.  And hell, make sure the site can’t be hacked and used to spam the world because you tinkered with some open source code because it was free.  If you are going to code, make sure you have the aptitude of a professional software engineer.
  • If your client can’t give you clarity on their messaging…fire them
  • If your client keeps changing the criteria of a project…fire them (or make sure you are billing by the hour)

Having written this, (full of turkey sandwich leftovers), its made me take a hard look at my own website, my responsibilities, and Broadlook’s website direction.  I’ve got some work to do.  Ok, rolling up my sleeves…  What I do know is that my next damn webmaster better know how to use spell-check (spell-check found 6 of my mistakes in this post).

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.  I feel fortunate to be working with such a great group of people at Broadlook.