10 Harsh Truths About Corporate Websites

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We all make mistakes running our websites. However, the nature of those mistakes varies depending on the size of your company. As your organization grows, the mistakes change. This post addresses common mistakes among large organizations.

Most of the clients I work with are large organizations: universities, large charities, public sector institutions and large companies. Over the last 7 years, I have noticed certain recurring misconceptions among these organizations. This post aims to dispel these illusions and encourage people to face the harsh reality.

The problem is that if you are reading this post, you are probably already aware of these things. But hopefully this article will be helpful to you as you convince others within your organization. In any case, here are our 10 harsh truths about websites of large organizations.

1. You Need A Separate Web Division

In many organizations, the website is managed by either the marketing or IT department. However, this inevitably leads to a turf war, with the website becoming the victim of internal politics.

In reality, pursuing a Web strategy is not particularly suited to either group. IT may be excellent at rolling out complex systems, but it is not suited to developing a friendly user experience or establishing an online brand.

Screenshot of Zeldman's website
Zeldman1 urges organisations to create a separate web division.

Marketing, on the other hand, is little better. As Jeffrey Zeldman puts it in his article Let there be Web divisions2:

The Web is a conversation. Marketing, by contrast, is a monologue… And then there’s all that messy business with semantic markup, CSS, unobtrusive scripting, card-sorting exercises, HTML run-throughs, involving users in accessibility, and the rest of the skills and experience that don’t fall under Marketing’s purview.

Instead, the website should be managed by a single unified team. Again, Zeldman sums it up when he writes:

Put them in a division that recognizes that your website is not a bastard of your brochures, nor a natural outgrowth of your group calendar. Let there be Web divisions.

2. Managing Your Website Is A Full-Time Job

Not only is the website often split between marketing and IT, it is also usually under-resourced. Instead of there being a dedicated Web team, those responsible for the website are often expected to run it alongside their “day job.” When a Web team is in place, it is often over-stretched. The vast majority of its time is spent on day-to-day maintenance rather than longer-term strategic thinking.

This situation is further aggravated by the fact that the people hired to “maintain” the website are junior members of the staff. They do not have the experience or authority to push the website forward. It is time for organizations to seriously invest in their websites by hiring full-time senior Web managers to move their Web strategies forward.

3. Periodic Redesign Is Not Enough

Because corporate websites are under-resourced, they are often neglected for long periods of time. They slowly become out of date with their content, design and technology.

Eventually, the website becomes such an embarrassment that management steps in and demands that it be sorted. This inevitably leads to a complete redesign at considerable expense. As I point out in the Website Owners Manual3, this a flawed approach. It is a waste of money because when the old website is replaced, the investment put into it is lost, too. It is also tough on finances, with a large expenditure having to be made every few years.

Screenshot of Cameron Molls Article
Cameron Moll encourages4 web designers to realign their website rather than redesign.

A better way is continual investment in your website, allowing it to evolve over time. Not only is this less wasteful, it is also better for users, as pointed out by Cameron Moll in his post Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign5.

4. Your Website Cannot Appeal To Everyone

One of the first questions I ask a client is, “Who is your target audience?” I am regularly shocked at the length of the reply. Too often, it includes a long and detailed list of diverse people. Inevitably, my next question is, “Which of those many demographic groups are most important?” Depressingly, the answer is usually that they are all equally important.

The harsh truth is that if you build a website for everyone, it will appeal to no one. It is important to be extremely focused about your audience and cater your design and content to it. Does this mean you should ignore your other users? Not at all. Your website should be accessible by all and not offend or exclude anybody. However, the website does need to be primarily aimed at a clearly defined audience.

5. You Are Wasting Money On Social Networking

I find it encouraging that website managers increasingly recognize that a Web strategy is more than running a website. They are beginning to use tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to increase their reach and engage with new audiences. However, although they are using these tools, too often they do so ineffectively. Tweeting on a corporate account or posting sales demonstrations on YouTube misses the essence of social networking.

Screenshot of Microsoft's Channel 9 website
Microsoft dramatically improved its image amoung the development community by allowing Microsoft staff to speak out via the Channel 9 website.

Social networking is about people engaging with people. Individuals do not want to build relationships with brands and corporations. They want to talk to other people. Too many organizations throw millions into Facebook apps and viral videos when they could spend that money on engaging with people in a transparent and open away.

Instead of creating a corporate Twitter account or indeed even a corporate blog, encourage your employees to start Tweeting and blogging themselves. Provide guidelines on acceptable behavior and what tools they need to start engaging directly with the community connected to your products and services. This demonstrates not only your commitment to the community but also the human side of your business.

6. Your Website Is Not All About You

Where some website managers want their website to appeal to everybody, others want it to appeal to themselves and their colleagues. A surprising number of organizations ignore their users entirely and base their websites entirely on an organizational perspective. This typically manifests itself in inappropriate design that caters to the managing director’s personal preferences and contains content full of jargon.

A website should not pander to the preferences of staff but should rather meet the needs of its users. Too many designs are rejected because the boss “doesn’t like green.” Likewise, too much website copy contains acronyms and terms used only within the organization.

7. You’re Not Getting Value From Your Web Team

Whether they have an in-house Web team or use an external agency, many organizations fail to get the most from their Web designers. Web designers are much more than pixel pushers. They have a wealth of knowledge about the Web and how users interact with it. They also understand design techniques, including grid systems, white space, color theory and much more.

Post from Twitter complaining about being a pixel pusher
Treating designers as pixel pushers wastes their design experience: post from Twitter complaining about being a pixel pusher

It is therefore wasteful to micro-manage by asking them to “make the logo bigger” or to “move that 3 pixels to the left.” By doing so, you are reducing their role to that of a software operator and wasting the wealth of experience they bring.

If you want to get the maximum return on your Web team, present it with problems, not solutions. For example, if you’re targeting your website at teenage girls, and the designer goes for corporate blue, suggest that your audience might not respond well to that color. Do not tell him or her to change it to pink. This way, the designer has the freedom to find a solution that may even be better than your choice. You allow your designer to solve the problem you have presented.

8. Design By Committee Brings Death

The ultimate symbol of a large organization’s approach to website management is the committee. A committee is often formed to tackle the website because internal politics demand that everybody has a say and all considerations be taken into account. To say that all committees are a bad idea is naive, and to suggest that a large corporate website could be developed without consultation is fanciful. However, when it comes to design, committees are often the kiss of death.

Illustration showing why design by committee fails
Design by committee leads to design on the fly.

Design is subjective. The way we respond to a design can be influenced by culture, gender, age, childhood experience and even physical conditions (such as color blindness). What one person considers great design could be hated by another. This is why it is so important that design decisions be informed by user testing rather than personal experience. Unfortunately, this approach is rarely taken when a committee is involved in design decisions.

Instead, designing by committee becomes about compromise. Because committee members have different opinions about the design, they look for ways to find common ground. One person hates the blue color scheme, while another loves it. This leads to designing on the fly, with the committee instructing the designer to “try a different blue” in the hopes of finding middle ground. Unfortunately, this leads only to bland design that neither appeals to nor excites anyone.

9. A CMS Is Not A Silver Bullet

Many of the clients I work with have amazingly unrealistic expectations of CMS (content management systems). Those without one think it will solve all of their content woes, while those who have one moan about it because it hasn’t!

It is certainly true that a CMS can bring a lot of benefits. These include:

  • reducing the technical barriers of adding content,
  • allowing more people to add and edit content,
  • facilitating faster updates,
  • and allowing greater control.

However, many CMS are less flexible than their owners would like. They fail to meet the changing demands of the websites they manage. Website managers also complain that their CMS is hard to use. However, in many cases, this is because those using it have not been adequately trained or are not using it regularly enough.

Finally, a CMS may allow content to be easily updated, but it does not ensure that content will be updated or even that the quality of content will be acceptable. Many CMS-based websites still have out-of-date content or poorly written copy. This is because internal processes have not been put in place to support the content contributors.

If you look to a CMS to solve your website maintenance issues, you will be disappointed.

10. You Have Too Much Content

Part of the problem with content maintenance on large corporate websites is that there is too much content in the first place. Most of these websites have “evolved” over years, with more and more content having been added. At no stage has anybody reviewed the content and asked what could be taken away.

Many website managers fill their website with copy that nobody will read. This happens because of:

  • A fear of missing something: by putting everything online, they believe users will be able to find whatever they want. Unfortunately, with so much information available, it is hard to find anything.
  • A fear users will not understand: whether from a lack of confidence in their website or in their audience, they feel the need to provide endless instruction to users. Unfortunately, users never read this copy.
  • A desperate desire to convince: they are desperate to sell their product or communicate their message, and so they bloat the text with sales copy that actually conveys little valuable information.

Steve Krug, in his book Don’t Make Me Think, encourages website managers to “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.” This will reduce the noise level on each page and make the useful content more prominent.

Conclusions

Large organizations do a lot right in running their websites. However, they also face some unique challenges that can lead to painful mistakes. Resolving these problems means accepting that mistakes have been made, overcoming internal politics and changing the way you control your brand. Doing so will give you a significant competitive advantage and allow your Web strategy to become more effective over the long term.

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.zeldman.com
  2. 2 http://www.zeldman.com/2007/07/02/let-there-be-web-divisions/
  3. 3 http://boagworld.com/websiteownersmanual
  4. 4 http://www.alistapart.com/articles/redesignrealign
  5. 5 http://www.alistapart.com/articles/redesignrealign

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

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  1. 1

    Great article. One of the best on SM. Congrats.

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  2. 52

    After doing this for nearly ten years in our organisation – I completely agree with these points. Managers in the industry need to have, even on a conceptual level – a better understanding of the complexities of corporate web design. This will allow them to be able to better engage with their online clients and their web team, and produce a successfully designed and delivered core site, which people will want to come back to. Kudos!

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  3. 103

    Hi,
    wonderful post, and mostly true, from my experience.

    I would be interested to further here your notion about the “committee” issue. I do agree that it may cause painful and odd looking compromises. But what is your solution to that problem?
    Users opinion is just one input for decisions. it cannot fully determine to design of you website…

    would you assign only one or two people to design and build a corporate website?

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  4. 154

    Excellent truths, which we do face a no of times. Especially the “committe taking up decisions and brining death” of a lovely deisgn indeed!

    Thanks SM.

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  5. 205

    I’d forward this article to my boss if it wasn’t for the fact that we aren’t going to do anything about it until he says so. My company SERIOUSLY needs a slight touch-up of its company site:

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  6. 256

    Having worked for the imbeciles at Dixons plc (one of Europe’s largest electrical retailers – how they managed that I will never know!) I can associate with this on almost a word by word basis.

    Great article but if any corporation does anything useful with any of this information (without a series of pointless and ineffective meetings to discuss… and to argue about the multiple alterations to the final reports colour scheme and font size) then I will eat the internet.

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  7. 307

    I love point 8 ! It’s always the same. Design or ergonomy should but can not be collectively decided…

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  8. 358

    The best article I have seen on here – I have sent it to several managers in my company…

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  9. 409

    Additional note: This should be read and understood by anyone considering a career in an in-house design position. At least they would know what they were getting into then!

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  10. 460

    Nice article. Very usefull and detailed. Thanks for posting SM

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  11. 511

    Great article. Its like you work at the company I do. Pretty much all those statements ring true for me personally!

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  12. 562

    Those points are 100% true. All of them!
    Who knows, maybe one day those things will change and evolve.
    A design&corporate change we can believe in :)

    Great article, thanks!

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  13. 613

    All true!

    Greetings,
    Dusan,
    Web manager.

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  14. 664

    AMEN! Experiencing #7 & #8 as I type this. This post is so perfect that I don’t even have anything to add… Plus I’m sending it around to every designer on my team.

    But it is sort of sad that we all agree but know there is no quick fix around this stuff. At least we should all be aware what we are getting ourselves into with corporate projects/jobs.

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  15. 715

    Point 7 really struck a chord for me; in fact I’ve just changed jobs for that very reason, I felt my skills and experience were being completely wasted

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  16. 766

    Richard Spencer Davies

    February 11, 2009 1:36 am

    Great Post!

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  17. 817

    These are good points. Redesigns are a bit of a soap box issue for me. I wrote a post about this particular point a while back:
    http://www.goodusability.co.uk/2008/11/do-you-really-need-to-do-that-redesign/

    Jared Spool also wrote about the quiet death of the major re-launch:
    http://www.uie.com/articles/death_of_relaunch/

    Another point I’d make is that your web team should not be looking after your intranet. They never give it the attention it deserves. Usually because they don’t have the resource to.

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  18. 868

    Give those employees managing a corporate website’s content more freedom, some training (maybe even – wooo – let them learn and use some html basics) and then trust them to do the right thing.
    I mean, I’ve seen hundreds of thousends (euros :-) ) vanish in rather useless (often customized) CMS solutions, nobody is happy with. They build templates after templates with dropdowns, tons of choices, totally restricted for the person using it daily. These people have to literally study how the CMS works, how each template works. And everytime they need to create a piece of content, they have to ask for a new template or functionality, wait for weeks to get it, while the company spends alot of money ordering it. Plus, it might take for ever to get some content up and online.

    So, why not postulate some guidelines about what sort of content, what look and feel is wanted, let the employees in charge fill a given “content area” with the appropriate (x)html. Teach them to validate and quick check in different browsers, trust them to do the right thing, let someone preview and approve and then publish that content. Man, it’s not so hard.

    I believe the misconception is that someone with virtually no web-knowledge should copy and paste word content into a 250-thousend-euro system. Why? Does anyone in an office, creating worthwhile content for their catalogue/brochure lay that out in word, indesign or whatever and send that out for printing 2 million copies? No – it’s been layed out by professional designers first.
    And imagine the total cost of ownership: Cut away 200 thousand. How long and how well could you pay someone to “just do it” with that money.

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  19. 919

    Great article. Thanks for that.

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  20. 970

    These are all very true observations, in my experience – and very well expressed.. But then, it’s not new to say “design by commitee is bad” – we know this – what does it do to tell each other things we all have to put up with all of the time?

    It seems business-types care about their BMWs and their expensive suits and their bonuses. They don’t care about the quality of work if it doesn’t relate directly to what their boss thinks, or how it makes them look, or how much money can be made out of it. They’re driven by greed, and envy, and laziness – that’s why they’re business types.

    I get the sad feeling that those of us who genuinely care about producing good, creative work are like those Japanese soldiers left behind on pacific islands after WW2 – still trying to fight a war that was lost years before.

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  21. 1021

    i dont often read the whole thing.. this was good!

    Smashed it

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  22. 1072

    Interesting post and discussion. Its important to recognise that many organisations have real difficulty in making the most of the web and to try and set some misconceptions straight.

    However, I’m not sure that the article really offers any strong conclusions, or helps to identify the root cause behind these problems: in order to help people offer better experiences online we have to identify problems but also to offer concrete solutions.

    The thing about large organisations is they are complex, and you can’t point at any one single individual to responsibilty for communicating online.

    In my opinion, the key issue here is about leadership – its up to “top management” to set direction and everything follows from this. The challenge for us as a community is therefore how do help companies understand what’s involved in being successful online and engage decision makers in the right way.

    Paul McKeever
    FRONT / follow me on twitter – @paulmckeever

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  23. 1123

    email this to every organisation in the world, especially if they have an inhouse web team.

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  24. 1174

    knowledgeble informative and excellent article !

    Thanks Smashing Magazine !!!!!!!!!!!!

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  25. 1225

    I am a critical bastard and as such can be told nothing due to an artificially inflated self-worth and a blatant desire to rule the world in my underwear.

    The sagacity of this article unveils my kinder, gentler self; I now desire to frolic on a midsummer’s day through fields of clover and cavort to the tunes of robin and sparrow.

    …that just looks fcking weird.

    Anyhoo, well done. Well done. Excellent wisdom here.

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  26. 1276

    A good article. Having been responsible for looking after public facing websites for large companies in the past I have seen a lot of these points first hand and you have hit the nail on the head.

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  27. 1327

    Very good article indeed, the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from Smashing Magazine. These truths are all spot-on, especially here in my country where the corporate mindset is still very old-fashioned. Most companies just want to put up a website, then they don’t care whether it gets updated or not. Oh, and everyone is strangely obsessed with Flash sites that serve absolutely no purpose. Go figure.

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  28. 1378

    That’s a good read! Thanks for the all the information on those harsh truths.

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  29. 1429

    It’s like you work where I do. Brilliant article, but they all seem so familiar to me!

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  30. 1480

    Izabela Bogdanovic

    February 11, 2009 3:08 am

    You are right Paul Boag, you are right… but!
    I really don’t feel any better after this article. I was just reminded about all the things I have to put up with in course of my work.

    This article is completely wasted on the population who reads? Smashing Magazine. You can’t change the people, you just accept them for who they are. If you constantly try to make them feel like idiots because you know more you are, indeed, on the wrong path.

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  31. 1531

    My thought exactly. #11 should have been, Thou Shalt Not Flash! (Not if you want to reach the new mobile user.) There are some sites that are so bad in this regard, that I actually *prefer* to access the mobile site alternative on my desktop, when it’s available!

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  32. 1582

    A must-read for all corporate directors.

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  33. 1633

    Very good and very pertinent to the project I am currently working on.

    Have forwarded on to my line managers and fellow developers ;-)

    — Lee

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  34. 1684

    “It’s like you work where I do. Brilliant article, but they all seem so familiar to me!”

    Yeah, I’ll second that one! I’ve printed the article out and plan to discuss some of the points with the people I work with. Thanks for the great article, Paul!

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  35. 1735

    Simple, but brilliant.

    Now make EVERY client read that now. And again. And again. And again. And again.

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  36. 1786

    bang on mate ! been in similar situations over and over again – “can u just move this over here” etc. and all design commities should be shoot

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  37. 1837
  38. 1888

    WOW! Spot on!

    I used to work for a “client” organisation, but went back into development about a year ago. I headed a redesign project of the company’s website and reading this article was like reading the manual that should have been around back then. I could identify myself and/or the company in almost every point made here.

    In the hope that there are lessons to be learned from this to improve the company’s web design process in the future, I sent this to my former managers (g’day if you’re reading this ;) ).

    Cheers!

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  39. 1939

    I have to say you have got it spot on. Evereything you have said rings so true with my experience as a web designer.

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  40. 1990

    Wonderful and unique article that is going to make me look at my web site at this moment.

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  41. 2041

    About point 10#:

    There is no such thing as TO MUCH content, you can never have enough. It just the way people display the content that is wrong.

    What you speak of is BAD content. The amount of content has nothing to do with that.

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  42. 2092

    I wish there was someone like the author working at my previous job.
    All those mistakes where a fact for me and the reason to leave.

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  43. 2143

    There is over a decades worth of knowledge wrapped up in this glorious post. Thank you!

    Lets up hope this message reaches the right people :)

    I’d also like to point out, this applies as much to SMB market as it does to larger corporations.

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  44. 2194

    Great article, sadly to much rings true. If only I had the bottle to send to the boss ;)

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  45. 2245

    nice post.

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  46. 2296

    I’m a web designer for my company. I have 2 bosses, one in IT and one in marketing….

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  47. 2347

    Voila. Compulsory reading for about 70% of our clients

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  48. 2398

    This is the Jerry McGuire Mission Statement for Corporate Web Developers! This hits the nail on the head for just about every problem my company is facing right now. I just sent it to my colleagues… Hopefully I won’t suffer the same fate as Jerry McGuire!

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  49. 2449

    What an excellent read – this article definitely made me step back and rethink my company’s website, and certainly has some points I want to bring up with the team.

    I especially liked #5 – many companies feel the need to use social networking tools, so they just start posting without any thought or good ambition.

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  50. 2500

    Excellent article, 100% true.

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