Web Watch: Relaunching a Grand Old Web Site
Test, test and test again
Some of the launch problems GOP.com experienced can be prevented by a well-managed "soft launch" — a private launch during which site creators invite a discrete number of users to join the site, check out the features and report back on any issues they discover.
The GOP.com team might well have conducted a soft launch, but if so, it seems it didn't invite enough users or allow enough time to surface important issues. One notable example: The day of launch, site visitors stumbled across documents containing all of the site administrator information, including instructions, logins and passwords. Had there been a sufficient soft-launch phase, one of the test users could have spotted this potential security breach, and someone might have pointed out the implications of a blank "Future Leaders" page.
GOP.com officially launched in beta — a designation often used with Web applications to indicate that the creators are still testing them and working out the kinks. It's a good way to get your Web site rolling and find out how everything will work when you suddenly have hundreds or thousands of site visitors. But in this case, the new GOP.com might have been better served by launching sooner and more privately, letting a smaller group of users weigh in before going public.
A soft launch also has the added benefit of beefing up your site's content: By the time the general public sees it, your initial users already have begun posting photos, having conversations and connecting with one another, which makes new users feel that they're joining an active community.
What's the takeaway here? No matter how nice-looking and professional the design of your new Web site, a hurried or poorly handled launch can take away from its impact. Don't forget how important the content is, keep your audience in mind and use a soft launch to test things out before you go prime time. And when in doubt, consider bringing in an expert. You wouldn't try to design a Web site by yourself without professional experience; by the same token, it's wise to bring in professional writers or information architects to take your site to the next level.