What Are the Real Differences Between Intranet and Internet Sites?

7 minute read
Patrick Walsh avatar

Are Intranets really just simpler versions of their big brother the Internet? In this guest article Patrick Walsh of the BBC argues that intranets need to be thought about much differently -- that is, if you want your project to succeed.


I gave a presentation on the Lean Intranet some weeks ago to an informal meet up of Content Strategists and Intranet people. In the presentation I was quite passionate about my position regarding intranet workers. I stated categorically that they should come out of the shadow of the internet and start creating their own tools and approaches -- their own profession. At the end of the presentation I was asked the following question by an astute member of the audience:

"You say you want us to create our own profession but what exactly are the differences between intranets and internets?"

To my shame I waffled and gave what might have been to many an acceptable answer but it was not acceptable to me. Afterward, I realized that I needed to give this question some more thought, and the result is this article.

‘It’s all web sites isn’t it?’

This is what someone once said to me. They were wrong. From once static pages, Internet sites have evolved and specialized. A quick trawl about the Web will yield sites with very different models, aims and methodologies.The successful ones will have figured out what their site is for and what model best suits getting the job one.

I think that intranets in general have not yet achieved this. I honestly think that many intranet workers look over their shoulders at their big brother, theinternet, and think that somehow they have the answer and we don’t. I think that when it comes to intranets neither have the answer…yet.

So as for my assertion that intranets and internet site are really different how can I back that up? I have thought of some areas where I think there is a real difference and I will enlarge on these differences below:

  • Users
  • Information needs
  • Knowledge
  • Shared Goals
  • Environment

Let’s have a closer look at each of these.

User Diversity

As an intranet worker you will have a unique set of users but, unlike many internet sites, they will not be homogeneous. OK, you might say that this is true for internet sites too as, for instance, many different groups of people use Google.

However they have a simple model in that the only major user motivation is ‘I want to find something about atopic’ and then connecting them with the most relevant content. I am not saying this is easy, it isn’t, but understanding what the users' motivations are is easy -- they want to find stuff.

With intranets you will encounter many different sets of users, all with differing motivations and ways of doing things, and so it can get very complicated and messy if you try and satisfy everyone. In many ways a Web site can choose its users by what they offer. An intranet site is stuck with their set of users and so must modify the site to suit them.

Just consider a few types of user sets an intranet must provide for: finance, operations and procurement. It’s like an internet site trying to be a banking site, Wikipedia and Ebay all at once. It’s a big problem and one for which intranet workers must find workable solutions for themselves, as no one else will.

Information Needs

I have already pointed out that there are differing user sets for intranets. Each one of these sets will have their own special information needs. What they want, when they want it and in which format.

Intranets do not have the luxury of going for the average. An internet site may say that this method of communicating with its users will be good for 95% of their users and so they might go for that as a satisfactory solution. For an intranet if that 5% is made up of say Senior Managers or Engineering then the intranet will have failed.

Solutions for identifying and prioritizing information needs based on what is good for their organization’s health have to be specific intranet solutions and sometimes, perhaps even specific to an organization.


I have already written on knowledge issues and intranets and I believe that identifying, leveraging and documenting organizational knowledge is a process that is unique to the workplace. Efforts to gain and codify knowledge remotely on the internet -- Wikipedia and a few other social knowledge sites excluded -- have not always been successful.

Learning Opportunities

This is also more or less true for ‘Intranet 2.0′. With an intranet our users are all around us and, as leveraging knowledge is always an activity best done face to face, we have a real advantage, but one that is rarely grasped. Organizations that effectively deploy simple knowledge techniques, integrated into an intranet team’s activities, will gain a considerable competitive edge.

Shared Goals

While at work, theoretically at least, all staff should be working towards unique shared goals -- goals that senior management have identified as vital to the organization’s ongoing prosperity. In my experience these goals are rarely identified and communicated effectively.

There is work to be done on how shared goals in the workplace can be identified and these goals should not only belong to senior management. Staff too have their goals -- for instance goals like the right to fulfill their potential, the right to have their ideas listened to, and the right to know what the overall goals are and how they can contribute.

The intranet can contribute to this process by providing methodologies that would help achieve this and also identify how these goals might be then effectively communicated.


Although home working is becoming more common, the huge majority of users access their intranets in the workplace. The conditions under which they access content is not always ideal.

Obvious environmental factors such as noise, lighting and where access points can be safely situated are things that need to be considered. But there are other workplace factors such as speed of operation, stress, shift working, etc. that should also be considered.

If a staff member’s work is time constrained, then stress may be caused if they have to go hunting all over a complex intranet for a piece of important content. In certain workplaces access points may be of few out of necessity, for example for safety considerations. Intranet teams should also be responsible for taking this on board and providing bespoke solutions to solve such problems.

I’m sure that you can think of more ways that intranets and public web sites differ, and if you do please comment.

In Summary

Perhaps the the most important difference between intranets and internet sites is the sense of responsibility for the content -- it's my opinion that intranet teams don’t always appreciate their obligations. Accessing both intranet and internet sites is a voluntary activity. However, with public websites, if you don’t give your users what they need, when they need it, they can always ‘walk with their fingers’ and try somewhere else.

This is not true for most intranet content, as it is generated by an organization’s activities and is unique to that organization. If users can’t find it on the intranet then they won’t find it anywhere else. So the opportunity for that organization’s staff to make the right decision, to work smarter and to have the right to fulfilling their personal potential is lost -- and the organization, at every level, is poorer for it.

About the author

Patrick Walsh

Patrick has lived most of his life in the Midlands in the UK, where the automotive industry used to be king. Having spent thirty years or so climbing the greasy pole from a lineside inspector to becoming a Quality and Environmental Manager in a large automotive group he became interested in information architecture and usability through setting up an online integrated quality/environmental/health and safety manual.