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New town website disappointing

November 18, 2010

Looks like I’m going to have to brush up on my astrophysics. How far are light years again?

At this week’s meeting, Walpole Selectmen announced that the town website (Walpole-MA.gov) underwent somewhat of a makeover.  The board fawned over the supposed new site, and not one had anything negative to say about the so-called redesign.

Selectman Mike Berry, who had been one of the Board’s most passionate advocates for a new website upon his election in June, gloated that, “as a candidate for this Board and beyond as a selectman, the updating and refreshment of the website was a personal goal and I think it is more than safe to say has been a goal for all [members of the board].”  He said that the board could finally “check it off” their list of goals and objectives.

Selectman Eric Kraus actually called the new website “light years ahead of where we once were.”

Count me as one local resident who is extremely disappointed with the new website.  I’m not sure which century Mr. Kraus, Mr. Berry, and the rest of the board members are living in but it has got to be light years away from the 21st.

In this century, the town of Walpole’s website is actually several light years behind the websites of nearly every single other community in the Commonwealth, and we only seem to be sending ourselves further back light years with this latest redesign.

The town website still looks bad and needs a real facelift. This is a problem a few moved-around links and a slight change in color scheme could never fix.  I do not want to insult the town webmaster, who did fine work renovating the website. But at this critical juncture in our town’s history where our website is rapidly becoming more and more outdated in both appearance and information provided, the town really needs to start examining whether it is possible to outsource the remodeling of the website. A true web design professional should be hired, at the very least, just to design a basic website from the ground up for the town.

According to the presentation to selectmen on Tuesday night, the town website gets about 200 hits per week and only about a dozen emails per week are received from residents through the site.  Those numbers seem very low, given that the town currently has 24,000 residents and there are many more outside of Walpole who are likely interested in visiting our site.  Even my own website and blog, without revealing too much about the exact count, gets far more than 200 hits per week. Perhaps one reason why the website is getting so few hits is because it really does look like it was last updated in 1999. Furthermore, even after months of work, the website unveiled this week still looks like perhaps it was last updated in 2001, not 2010.  We have only moved ahead a couple of years in appearance, if even.

To be fair, there are a few positive improvements for the new site, which I think the whole town should be very excited about. For example, the new Google Search feature, located at the top of every page on the site, works very well, and even searches within PDF documents, like meeting minutes and agendas, posted on the site.  A search of “Cliff Snuffer,” for example, turns up a few pages of search results, mostly PDF documents of meeting minutes and agendas from Selectmen’s meetings.  Oddly, however, none of the results were of the actual Selectmen’s webpage, with Snuffer’s name posted on it, which indicates that Google has not completely indexed the website just yet.  All the same, the new search is a much-needed improvement to the site. The old site lacked even a rudimentary search box, so any search box at all is definitely a step in the right direction.

In addition, the website now has a daily schedule of every meeting being held that day at Town Hall.  It is accurate and informative.

The town also now has a great new online bill-paying service, which webmaster Pat Krusko presented to the Board in conjunction with Finance Director Mark Good.  Town residents will now be able to pay their town bills, from water bills to property taxes, using a secure, online transaction through InvoiceCloud.com, a company co-run by a Walpole resident.  While the town did previously have some form of online bill-paying available, this new service is a definite improvement.

Selectman Chris Timson pointed out that he would like to see more done to utilize the website to attract businesses to Walpole. The Economic Development webpage, indeed, is unacceptable and should be completely redone with updated information and links that are not jumbled and that do not all link to PDF documents.  The town should consider, for example, posting an updated “Bird Machine” webpage that does not look like it is written in government bureaucratic language.  I have more suggestions in a previous blog post here.

I was surprised to see that Mr. Timson thought he was being so radical by proposing that the town put a “For Businesses” link at the top of the homepage.  Yes, Mr. Timson, this is a good idea, but nearly every other town with a good website has such a link, so you are a few years behind schedule.  Walpole is far behind in developing a truly business-friendly site.

Mr. Berry also took great pains to announce that he was very pleased the town did not have to pay an outside company to redo the website, boasting about the fact that the site was redone in-house.  I, too, am pleased that we have someone like Ms. Krusko who is capable of creating a new site and maintaining it on a regular basis.  I think Ms. Krusko deserves a lot of credit for being able to maintain it as often and as well as she does; the only problem is that the design and format of the website itself is a problem and the information she is provided to post on the site is outdated and not useful in many cases, as in the Economic Development webpage. The webmaster is not the problem; the problem is a clear lack of focus, and an absence of goals and objectives for what we want the website to look like and to provide.

I believe the town can hire a local web designer, or even a more upscale, sophisticated designer from out of town, for no more than a few thousand dollars, if even that high, to redesign the website to make it look nicer.  Then, the town can still rely on Ms. Krusko to update and maintain the site, without her having to make any substantial changes to the underlying web design code.

Perhaps a huge problem here is that many members of the Board are wildly overestimating the cost and resources needed to create and maintain a website.  Web site design and web site maintenance are actually two wholly separate and distinct functions.  The design of a website is one thing, but then the maintenance of a site does not necessarily need to always be done by the same web designer at a very high ongoing price.  For example, the new Walpole Library website is being maintained by a staff member at the library who had very little to do with the actual design of the site.

I look forward to seeing future developments on the town website, and I anticipate further improvements in the future.

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