What Happens If You Don't Have a Unified Web Platform?

Properly implemented, a unified web platform helps solve a lot of problems. We cover some of the biggest issues a scattered web presence can cause for your organization.

Large organizations with several subsidiaries, such as state governments, universities, and large media companies, often have fragmented web presences. Each agency or department has its own budget, with different stakeholders, different goals, and different ideas about how best to serve its audiences. Because of this, you end up with different sites with custom designs powered by different content management systems (CMS) running on different hosting providers.

It's tempting to let everyone do their own thing. Getting everyone to the same table for an hour is hard enough, let alone finding any common agreement.

But the hard work to align sites across the organization is worth it. Without a unified web platform, you open yourself up to a lot of problems.

What do we mean by "unified web platform?"

Because Drupal can be configured in multiple ways to support multiple websites, we need to first clarify what we don't mean when we talk about unified web platforms.

A unified web platform does not necessarily mean:

  • Using Drupal's multisite capabilities to run multiple Drupal websites from a single codebase, each with its own content types, themes, and custom code
  • Using the Domain suite of modules to create multiple websites in a single Drupal installation. The websites all share the same users, content, and configurations. 
  • Building microsites with Drupal, which are more like glorified sections of a larger website that need their own layouts and design. For example, a TV network might create a microsite for each of its shows.


When we say unified web platform, we are talking about an overarching design system and content model powered by the same CMS.

This unification results in multiple smaller websites that are easier to manage and maintain. Each looks affiliated and familiar to visitors, instilling user confidence in the organization. Some websites might not use everything the platform offers, but a content editor could go to another website on the same platform and feel right at home. The internal user interface and site administration setup are the same.

Unified web platforms work great for large organizations that have subsidiaries of varying levels of autonomy, like universities, state governments, professional sports leagues, and enterprise organizations that offer many distinct but related products. For an idea of how this works for the State of Iowa, watch our webinar on building a flexible design system.

Properly implemented, a unified web platform helps solve a lot of problems.

Lack of brand consistency

Subsidiary website designs can drift too far from their parent brand. They can sometimes have their own staff, content authoring rules, and, in some cases, design systems that don't reflect the larger organization. Brand assets like logos and slogans might be customized or applied inappropriately. Color palettes might not match. Imagery like photos and icons can differ or, worse, not align with the brand's personality. Typography can look like it was picked by throwing darts at a board. The content itself can be inwardly focused and misaligned with the established brand voice and tone.

While brand fragmentation is terrible for marketing purposes, it can also be harmful to users. State governments whose agency websites don't follow brand guidelines open themselves up to potential fraud because users can't immediately verify the authenticity of a website. Imposter websites become more effective. Constituents learn to approach official websites with a posture of distrust. They are always left guessing whether they are on a legitimate government site or not.

Loose security practices

In an ecosystem without a unified platform, some websites might use Drupal, while some use WordPress. Others might use custom-built solutions. Another might live on a server stuck under someone's desk, gathering dust, but still exposed to the outside world. And worse, no one keeps track because it is impossible to know which sites are hosted where and by whom.

Security best practices can't be enforced when there is so much variety. Each software platform is in an unknown state, and security updates can't be deployed in a timely way or even at all. Code is pushed live without any concern for testing, and there is no plan if the upgrade needs to be rolled back. The gates are open, and there are cracks in the walls, but no one knows about them.

With a unified platform, where all websites are hosted on the same software stack, you can more easily enforce security best practices and deploy regular security updates. Deploying a Single Sign-On (SSO) solution is also easier, and it helps security by centralizing user and access management.

Failure to meet web accessibility standards

Coordinating guidelines and policies across subsidiaries in a decentralized organization can be challenging. Many legacy systems weren't built with accessibility in mind, and retrofitting them to meet current standards can be expensive. Beyond basic things like alt text, color contrast, and readability, content is now more complex and needs to be structured to provide meaning.

While having a unified platform won't automatically solve all of your accessibility issues, it makes enforcing standards easier and ensures the low-hanging fruit is plucked. Educating your content teams on accessibility becomes smoother when they are using a shared set of tools.

High technical debt

How many features have been duplicated across your network of websites? How many different implementations of a contact form or a slideshow are currently in use? Not only did you spend time and money to have these all developed, but you currently spend time and money to maintain them, and all of these one-off customizations will make it almost impossible to implement major design changes. Your total cost of ownership is high, and it will only get higher.

A well-run unified platform costs less to maintain than the same number of independent websites. It also centralizes quality assurance (QA). When you test features, you are testing features that everyone is using. When you fix a bug, it's fixed for everyone.

Content governance becomes almost impossible

While content governance is hard, no matter how your websites are set up, it becomes almost impossible without a unified platform. Content types have different structures so that documentation can be a mess. Content entry is different, so training on best practices becomes fragmented. Navigation and site architecture can be different, so how content is organized from site to site can spiral out of control. It's easier to create duplicate (or conflicting) content. For visitors, this can all lead to unclear user flows. What do they do next?

A unified platform won't make successful content governance automatic, but it will provide a foundation that isn't shifting under your feet. You can build policies and processes with confidence.

Inconsistent user experience

Whether filing for a permit or submitting an application for assistance, there should be some consistency in the experience. Forms should look consistent. Navigation from site to site shouldn't be in different spots on the page. Alerts should be recognizable no matter which website a user is on.

Any good unified platform will have undergone several rounds of user research and usability testing. Every website on the platform will benefit from that same research and testing, and without that consistency, users can get lost and frustrated.

Reasons to NOT have a unified web platform

We've touted the potential benefits of unifying your websites with a single platform, but it isn't a catchall solution. It makes sense in certain circumstances and for certain organizations. But they take a lot of time and planning to implement properly. Make sure your organization could really benefit from such an initiative. Here are some reasons why you might want to avoid a unified platform.

  • Your websites have very different audiences, purposes, and voices. For example, a state lottery website should be different from a department of education website. Shared branding could be detrimental.
  • If your subsidiary organizations are large enough and different enough to maintain their own websites. They each have the staff in place to build and maintain such systems.
  • If the platform isn't a priority of top-level stakeholders who have some authority to enforce goals and priorities. Just because you built a unified web platform doesn't mean people will adopt it. If no one with authority is pushing the move, it probably won't happen.
  • Your network is made up of different types of web applications. For example, you might have an application entirely driven by remote data sources and without editorial needs. It doesn't need to be powered by a CMS.


Committing to a unified web platform is an investment, but one that pays off with greater security, higher content quality, improved accessibility, and better brand consistency. If done right, the platform can be flexible enough to keep these benefits while allowing each website a degree of autonomy. You get the best of both worlds.

We've built flexible, unified platforms for GeorgiaIowaUMass Amherst, and more. If you would like to explore a similar solution for your organization, contact us.

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