@INFO.POLICY: Do you know how to tell if your site is any good?

Robert Gellman

Is my Web site any good? Any agency webmaster should be asking that question on a regular basis. And yet it is not the right starting question.

The place to begin is with standards. What standards should webmasters and agency managers use to evaluate the value of Web sites? That is a much harder question. If you don't use objective standards, then you are just guessing. Government is too far advanced into the Internet era to let Web sites pass muster just because they look neat.

Here are some things to think about:

First, what laws and policies apply to agency Web sites? I am not asking yet whether agency Web sites are in compliance with the laws and policies. The question is whether you even have a list of relevant laws and policies. If you don't, then you don't even know what you are required to do. Only after identifying all requirements can you begin to answer the compliance question.

Second, are Web site management and infrastructure adequate? Relevant issues include the amount of bandwidth, whether security features are in place and up to date, whether Web site operators have backup and disaster plans for their sites, and whether they've addressed records management and records preservation issues.

Also: Is it clear who can post and change the content on the Web site? Web sites need sound management just like other activities.

Notice that I have run though a bunch of relevant performance measures for Web sites and that none of the measures addresses content. Content may be the most important single element, but it is not the only one that contributes to the value of a Web site. You can have great content, but a site can still be hard to use, out of date or insecure.

Third, are you meeting user needs? Don't tell me how many hits you have because that by itself says little. Many bankrupt Net companies had Web sites with zillions of hits. The companies went bust anyway because they didn't convert hits into customers. Agencies for the most part don't have to generate revenue to stay in business, but they still need to serve customers.

So ask, do you know how many documents users are downloading and which ones? Are all the basic agency documents on the site? Can users find what they want easily?

These questions offer only an introduction to assessing federal Web sites. For more on this subject, I recommend the report Performance Measures for Federal Agency Web Sites that Chuck McClure, Tim Sprehe and Kristen Eschenfelder prepared in 2000 for some federal agencies. This pioneering study has not received the attention it deserved. You can find it at slis-two.lis.fsu.edu/~cmcclure. The report's detailed evaluation methodology will be very useful for any federal'or state or local'webmaster.

Web site evaluation is neither rocket science nor the Bataan death march. It is just something that needs to be done. Government Web activities need to meet standards of economy, efficiency and value just like other government activities. If you don't know the standards, then you can't tell if your Web site is any good.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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