Digital Sprawl undermining ESG initiatives

21 Mar 2023 | Accessibility

Michelle Hay
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What is digital sprawl?

Post COVID, the number of digital assets including websites, web applications and online content has continued to grow rapidly. Digital sprawl refers to the proliferation of these digital assets which occurs within organizations without proper oversight and control of them, e.g., websites can be created for a variety of reasons such as personal projects, experimental initiatives and promotional events.

How is digital sprawl undermining ESG initiatives?

The considerable expansion and increased reliance of being online presents significant challenges for organizations already struggling with digital issues such as security and online governance, with a lack of corporate executive oversight at the heart of the issue.

The difficulty for senior management in being able to monitor this profusion is creating considerable additional exposure and immediate risks, which can easily lead to compliance litigation and financial losses as a result. Take website accessibility as an example; there is an overreliance on third party vendors and service providers who are quick to provide assurances regarding accessibility - but has anyone in the organization actually checked the compliance status? In most cases, it’s the organizations that are liable for their website accessibility shortcomings, not the vendor or the service provider. The same is true for Privacy; who really has a handle on what data is being collected, where is it going, who has access to it?

These are just two governance examples that are undermining ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) initiatives. Then there is the environmental impact; over the last 5-10 years, online has grown relentlessly, with old content not removed, resulting in increased energy consumption, carbon emissions, and resource utilization.

Forgotten content poses the greatest risk

The greatest concern is websites and content which has been forgotten. Across larger organizations, our research has shown that 41% of websites are ‘unknown’. Add this to the pages, sites and website addresses that have been added in recent years to keep pace with rapidly growing online requirements, and as much as 60% of an organization’s digital footprint could be out of its control.

Examples of digital sprawl

In the rush to get online, perhaps to meet some urgent business need, it’s common for departments within an organization to create their own websites, web pages and even add online services from third parties, often without the knowledge of central web or IT teams. These websites are delivered in the organization’s name without having been subject to the same level of governance, e.g., compliance and adherence to brand guidelines. The organization bears all of the responsibility, but without any of the control.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

An online retailer with a main website (turnover of circa $120m / operating in the US, UK, FR and DE). When first asked the question, they stated - “we only have a handful of sites”.

The reality:

Events sites

3-4 per quarter

Country operating sites

x 4

Recruitment pages / sites

x 7

Offer pages, content (their own, mixed in within 3rd parties)


Country specific returns sites (externally managed)

x 4 

Product delivery pages

x 8

Chat service local language / market support

x 4

Payment pages, gateway 

x 3

Voucher / coupons sites

x 6 

Outlet sites (US / UK)

x 2 



 Turns out the organization that thought it only had ‘a handful of sites’, has at least 50.  

A heavy engineering company with global operations ~ $10bn turnover. Estimated to have around 275 websites.

The reality:

Main in-country sites (operating in 50 countries sales, service and brand sites)

x 711

Localized versions (language / and applicable content)

x 118

Recruitment 11 coutries

x 38 sites, 114 hosted pages

Events, contacts pages / 3rd party deliverd

x 278

ESG, procurement and other pages / sites

x 16

Locally manages news sites, publishing

x 36

Chat provision / support

x 19

Content syndication, 3rd party provision

x 40

External LMS (Learning Management)

x 5



Turns out the organisation that thought it only had ‘275 sites’ has at least 1200. 

What should be done?

The impact of digital sprawl and the increased dependance on an organization’s digital assets means that being online can no longer be regarded as a purely a web, technical or operational issue. It is a risk issue that sits squarely within the oversight responsibility of the executive board. Managing the impact, and reducing an organization’s risk, starts with mapping and monitoring of what is really out there.