In the course of yamming and tweeting about a bugbear of mine, I've realised I have enough to say to make a blogpost.
The bugbear is people who want bespoke websites for short-lived projects
Or, anyway, people saying yes to them without asking pertinent questions.
As I wrote to someone else earlier today: '"Wanting their own site" is a big, big, MAJOR tendency of which I would like to break a great many production teams, programme and otherwise.'
Simply put: I find it futile and annoying how much web design and site-building goes into promoting events that'll last a month, or in some cases, a day. The event, and hence the usefulness of the site, is ephemeral, while the site just sits somewhere afterwards, forever or until it falls prey to a deletion quota.
Why this stuff annoys me
This annoys me particularly because, of all the discrete "websites" I've worked on that went on to live somewhere on bbc.co.uk, many of them in my opinion should not have existed.
On /religion I worked on bespoke programme pages, because at the time (i.e. before /programmes standardised programme pages) this was what was done. It resulted in a lot of lavish sites that nobody now visits. One such example was The Passion, which has been moved to /programmes but whose old bespoke site remains. Look at all that stuff. Galleries, audio clips, articles – all made for a week-long programme broadcast one Easter. It could expect a repeat or two on subsequent Easters, and then? Out to pasture. All that really nice design and build work (CW, BB, PMS: my bribes go to the usual locker number) for a site that was of public interest for far less time than it took to make.
That's fixed now for programme sites, as I said. Each episode now gets its own automatically-generated page on /programmes, which page the programme production team can themselves update with any extra material they care to add. Some get customised page colours and banners, but in general most of the layout and design remains the same as on other programme pages – as it should.
But I also worked on some campaign or event sites. Some were for non-BBC events that we'd publicise for public interest, like the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, or World Youth Day (an annual Catholic event). Some were campaigns run by local radio and similar low-budget departments, and were cases in which we'd make a site or page for them because they couldn't afford to. One more prominent example was a large site, with its own top-level directory, for Liverpool '08, when that city was Capital of Culture. It was updated weekly while the event went on. Now? Oops indeed; at time of blogging it doesn't even have a mothball banner.
So, after National Buy a Book For a Cow day was over, we'd end up with a site sitting orphaned somewhere on bbc.co.uk – because while it's bad manners to leave 404s (I'm not sure if 410s are seen as similarly impolite), the site had outlived its usefulness as soon as the ephemeral event was past. With luck someone would remember to mothball this. (If I still have FTP access I might see about doing so for Liverpool '08…)
The problem is that we haven't seen a solution similar to /programmes for websites specific to events ("ephemerals", as I keep wanting to call them for some reason). Actually there sort of is a solution (see next section), but it doesn't seem to be enforced: I still see a few custom sites getting built.
Can't we put a lot of these things on Things To Do?
The BBC has a section called Things To Do, which is geared up to present events that happen at specific times in specific places. Actually I'd never seen Things To Do before @r4isstatic mentioned it today, and when I saw it I thought it was pretty ace and wondered why it isn't being used for a lot of these campaigns and events. You get the design and layout ready-made, space for a nice big picture if you really must have your own set of branding (a separate rant entirely!), things like maps and related events all added for you, and your event stays in a huge back archive, easy to find when you want to refer to it. Why would you reinvent the wheel?
I suspect the answer may be that bugbear: production teams may not understand the web that well, and they want their own site. The problem is that they get it. In the BBC these days you can't just be given a bespoke site without someone giving you permission, and I don't think the permission should necessarily be granted. In my view there are only a few cases – Children in Need, for example, is a perfectly legitimate example that is heavily promoted across the BBC and reoccurs annually – in which a big custom-made site is appropriate. The rest should go through a sort of common-sense test and most of them should be refused.
Questions I'd ask
Here are some questions that I would put to any team that asked for their own bespoke site.
- Why do you want your own site? (will give an idea of how much they understand the web)
- What lasting value will it have?
- Will people still visit the site in two years' time? ("no" answer = automatic refusal)
- Would it sit appropriately on an existing BBC system, like /programmes, /showsandtours, /thingstodo, News, Blogs…? ("yes" answer = it gets built on that system, not as a new site)
- Is it infringing on the purpose of another site on bbc.co.uk? ("yes" answer = automatic refusal)
- For example, is it a site about World Animal Taxonomy Day, which would clash with Wildlife Finder? If so, it gets put on /thingstodo or similar and promoted by Wildlife Finder.
I think that kind of approach would help to organise the way in which we commission sites and cut down the number of ephemerals sitting mournfully where nobody can find them. It would save all that wasted time, effort and budget, which sounds like a pretty good thing at the moment.