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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Website Evolution and Profitable Revenue

A rather long and complex post to make a simple point, I'm afraid, but process is everything.

I've been reading Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth, which is a powerful presentation of the evidence for evolution, and I've been impressed by his skillful use of analogy in making his case. Analogies are like cars: they all eventually break down (as this one is about to do). Analogies are useful as aids to understanding (as cars are not).

In fact, analogies are not only useful: they are necessary, because our understanding of the world we inhabit is largely figurative. Have you ever wondered why so many things taste like chicken? It's because we cannot express what the taste of something is (except as a chemical reaction, which would be meaningless to the vast majority); instead we have to understand our taste experience by comparison. We don't ask what the taste of a strawberry is. We ask what a strawberry tastes like.

But I digress.

Dawkins externalizes his search for appropriate analogies for evolution. He lets us in on his thought processes and his reservations, which is a good thing, since the audience he is really trying to reach (most likely in vain, I'm afraid) are linguistic literalists, the people who believe in the literal truth of the mythic, and as a result, that the age of the Earth is somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years.

Once more I digress.

One of the analogies that Dawkins tosses aside as inadequate and misleading is the comparison of DNA with a blueprint. When you build a house from a blueprint, you know where the roof trusses are going to go before you lay the foundation. This is top-down design. We can think of DNA as a set of instructions, but in order for DNA to be a top-down blueprint for the born/hatched/germinated instance of life, it would have to contain an exponentially greater number of instructions.

A more fitting analogy for the way that embryologic life develops is the recipe. If you look at a building carefully, you can reverse engineer it and come up with a blueprint. You can't do the same thing with a cake. A recipe does not describe a finished result. It is a set of instructions that sets a process in motion toward a not-completely-predictable result.

But, to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, that's not what I came here to talk about. I came here to talk about websites, and my point is really quite simple.

Your website should be a living, breathing entity. It is never done developing, so you can't start with a "final" state in mind. Instead, you need to start with a recipe, with a set of ingredients that interact to achieve objectives. You're not building a cathedral, and visitors don't come to your website to worship. Your website is not a one-time investment or a cost of doing business. It is an ongoing budget line and a profit centre. For most businesses, it is the key to more profitable revenue, because it drives down the cost of opportunities.

Think of your website as an ongoing dinner party with your customers, during which you engage in mutually beneficial, sparkling conversation. The courses change, but their purpose remains as a vehicle for that conversation.

When you are developing your website, you primary considerations should be your objectives, a recipe for success, and the ingredients you need to begin the process.