Gerry McGovern // New Thinking

We manage what we can EASILY measure

December 12, 2010 -- Gerry McGovern

The challenge of management is not just measurement. It’s measuring the right things.

There is an old saying among managers: If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. It’s one of the basic principles of management and many would say that whatever is not measurable is not seen as important by managers.

Measurement is essential. But what is even more important is what you measure. There’s no point in measuring the wrong thing. Unfortunately, that is often what happens when it comes to web management. The philosophy often seems to be: let’s find what’s easy to measure and then let’s manage that.

Take for example the Cult of Volume that pervades so much management thinking when it comes to the Web. It’s long been known that HITS stands for How Idiots Track Success. But people still love to quote HITS because HITS is an easily calculable, big number and we all know how everyone just loves BIG numbers.

HITS is a totally and utterly useless metric. For the vast majority of websites, volume-based metrics are useless, counter-productive and encourage the worst possible practice when it comes to web management. Irish weather is usually mild. But lately it’s been absolutely freezing. So, I and many others have been regularly visiting our local weather sites. From a management perspective, what does all this volume tell you? If next winter is really mild and there is a substantial drop in visitors, what will that say?

If there is a flu pandemic and lots and lots of people visit health websites, what does that tell you? Should health websites hope that people get sick a lot? If you’re running a support website are you happy that lots of people are coming to your website? Was the BP web team delighted to see the huge increase in traffic to its websites? Was the Toyota web team over the moon about the Toyota recall?

I’ve been looking at volume-based web statistics for a long time. In most situations up to 50 percent (and sometimes more) of web traffic volume is utterly useless. It’s people finding you by accident, like when they dial the wrong number. Volume is very easy to manipulate and a volume-based approach encourages worst possible practice when it comes to web management.

Instead of producing the minimum amount of content necessary to help your customers complete tasks, the Cult of Volume encourages you to publish more and more pages. The Cult of Volume says never remove a page even if it’s out of date. The Cult of Volume says don’t simplify a task path, because the more steps the more volume. The Cult of Volume says it’s great that people are spending ages on a page and wants you to make it even more cluttered and confusing so they’ll spend even longer.

The proper way to manage a website is to measure whether people are able to complete their top tasks. When I went to the weather site during the big freeze I needed to make a decision: Should I drive today or stay at home? Did the website help me make that decision?

Sure, that’s not easy to measure. But if we only manage what’s easy to measure we’re not really managing at all.