A few years ago, my family moved into a house with a beautiful backyard garden. I'm sure every plant, bush, and tree had been lovingly selected by the previous homeowner, a retired man who had been the home's original occupant.

Unfortunately, neither my wife nor I have much of a green thumb. To us, yard work is a chore. We can both enjoy a well-appointed yard, but it's not something we're eager to spend our free time on. Sure, we do the basics—mowing the lawn, pulling some weeds—but not much more.

After we'd lived in the house for a couple of years, we decided to get professional help. We hired a landscaper to give us a hand cleaning things up. One of the things he pointed out was that some of the trees and bushes had become badly overgrown.

Overgrown bushes can be a danger to themselves. The excess limbs obscure the sunlight. That inhibits new growth, and leaves other branches to rot and die. This, in turn can attract insects and disease. Occasional cutting and shaping is good for the long-term health of the garden. A good gardener knows to prune a plant to help it thrive.

“Before long, the website becomes an overgrown bush. Rot develops. The bugs move in. And the organization’s forced to contemplate ripping it all out and starting over. ”

The gardener trimmed our bushes back. They were much healthier for it. But, a couple of plants were beyond saving. He had to remove them altogether.

That's as good a metaphor as any for the website of many mature organizations.

Many organizations' websites developed organically, without the guiding hand of a centralized digital authority. The company may have launched their first site quickly, before they had much digital expertise. As needs evolved and changed, new branches appear, grafted onto the original site. Different groups within the organization request, and are granted, their own sections of the site to play with. Others decide to go it alone, working with third parties who build to suit their particular needs, without thinking about the broader organization. Before long, the website becomes an overgrown bush. Rot develops. The bugs move in. And the organization's forced to contemplate ripping it all out and starting over.

The symptoms are usually obvious.

The first is that it's too easy to get content published to the site. Every division is able to find space for their pet concerns, and the digital teams are stuck in execution mode. Nobody is empowered to refuse an incoming request, no matter how misguided it may be. This often affects the homepage most of all. Everyone somehow managed to find a sliver of space "above the fold," just by being noisy enough. The site's navigation, meanwhile, begins to reflect the org chart more than a meticulously crafted information architecture. It keeps stakeholders happy, but it's a confusing morass to anyone outside the organization.

This contributes to a second symptom: excessive content. Pages are never retired, even if the products or campaigns they support no longer exist. Press releases from a decade ago crowd out more meaningful updates. Trivial announcements and internal updates obscure the information that customers are actually looking for. Search is no help: it pulls up irrelevant results that undermine the user's hope that they’ll ever find what they need.

The third and perhaps most costly sign is the growth of microsites. These satellite pages seem to function apart from the main digital presence. They may even disguise themselves as helpful new growth. But they have a pernicious tendency to linger on well past their natural lifecycle. Nobody in the organization seems to have the wherewithal to take them down. They attract a slow trickle of hits from confused customers who wonder if they’re getting phished, or reach out across long-abandoned contact channels. These are the dead limbs on the site. They draw nutrients like time, money, and brand authority away from the main site.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

It starts with clear strategy and governance policies. The strategy must be explicit about what the organization intends to do with its digital presence. More importantly, it must also establish clear guard rails around what the organization will not do. This requires research and careful consideration of what your customers and users ultimately need from your digital experience—not just what your stakeholders want to show them.

The strategy needs to be a defensive document, protecting the organization from itself. A clear strategy is a preventative measure. It should define the company's intent and values as a digital organization, as well as the principles that will enable execution. A well-wrought strategy ensures that resources aren't siphoned from key priorities to flavour-of-the-month projects or fire drills. And, it sets up clear, enforceable, decision-making models.

But setting strategy isn't enough. Digital environments require regular maintenance as well. This means regular pruning of dead content, and clean-up of stray branches that threaten to overwhelm the plant before they become a problem. This is proactive work, necessary to ensure the long-term health of the digital ecosystem. Continuous care and feeding creates an environment in which the website can thrive; neglect and complacency breeds disease and blight.

Strategy and policy must empower a good team of gardeners. This means a digital team that does more than carry out the whims of non-experts. It's a team that has the teeth it needs to act on their expertise to help achieve the organization's goals. This team needs to have end-to-end oversight over what's going on, and be able to prune away the dead branches so they can promote healthier growth.

Their work needs to begin with a daunting task: a thorough audit and evaluation of all of the organization’s digital touch points. This is more challenging than it sounds. If the ecosystem has truly grown organically, expect to come across surprises: hidden roots and weeds that nobody seems to remember, let alone be willing to take accountability for. But you need to uncover as many of them as possible.

“If the ecosystem has truly grown organically, expect to come across surprises: hidden roots and weeds that nobody seems to remember, let alone be willing to take accountability for. ”

Then, review and evaluate. Determine the site’s purpose and consider its relationship to the rest of your ecosystem. Are some of these still getting traffic? Are there content, capabilities, or functionality that need to be migrated to your main site? Were the microsites or channels successful? What can you learn from their success or failure? Think, too, about why the microsite was created: are they a symptom of an unrealized need within your organization? If your strategy still can’t satisfy that need, more microsites are sure to pop up.

You may not need to eliminate every microsite. Indeed, there are cases in which a microsite is warranted. For instance, if the site serves a very specific niche audience whose content or information needs are dramatically different from your main audience, it might be worth a microsite. Other cases might include experiments, or industry partnerships that warrant a neutral site. But these are exceptions, not the rule. And, in most cases, microsites should be explicitly temporary, with a clear plan for their retirement that actually gets acted on.

From there, you can begin a more thorough content audit, really digging into the weeds of all the content across your various sites. Evaluate and score content against your strategy. What will help you fulfill your users’ needs? What is redundant? What gaps still need to be filled?

This is not easy work. The biggest challenges are often cultural. People can often feel a strong emotional attachments to projects they’ve worked on. Or, they may even perceive this work as insulting to their past efforts. If stakeholders have become used to having their way, they'll be reluctant to cede control to others.

But it’s not meant to be threatening. Success means having empathy for stakeholders and their needs. Digging up the root problems can go a long way toward identifying the real problems to be solved and earning trust. And that can help lead to a digital ecosystem that is happier and healthier for everyone.