So what are the real differences between intranet and internet sites?

November 21, 2010

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 a 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. Afterwards I realized that I needed to give this question some more thought and the result is this post.

‘It’s all web sites isn’t it?’

Is what someone once said to me. They were wrong. From once static pages, web sites have evolved and specialized. A quick trawl through some  internet sites 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, the  internet, 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 diference and I will enlarge on these differences below –


Information needs


Shared Goals


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


As an intranet worker you will have a unique set of users but, unlike many internet sites, they will not be homogenous. 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 a  topic’ and then connecting them with the most relevant content. I am not saying this is easy, it isn’t, but understanding the the user’s motivation is easy.  In intranets there are 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 an internet 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 think of a few types of user sets an intranet needs to 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 because 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 to 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, levering 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. This is also more or less true for ‘Intranet 2.0’. With an intranet our users are all around us and, as levering 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 out of 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, and if you do please comment.

Perhaps the major difference is the responsibility for unique content that intranet teams don’t always admit to or appreciate. Accessing both intranet and internet sites is a voluntary activity. For an internet site 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 much intranet content because 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.

8 Responses to “So what are the real differences between intranet and internet sites?”

  1. So what are the real differences between intranet and internet sites?…

    This article has been submitted to IntranetLounge, a website with a collection of links to the best articles about intranets…

  2. Bettina Says:

    Great post!
    It gives me arguments I need for why design is “equally” important at the inside. Not of “commercial” reasons but usability reasons. If hat 5% is management – we are lost too.

    I am not speaking about seducing the reader but the “functional design” making people able to do their task and feeling good about the Intranet interface. Why not spend some dimes on that too. And of course on the interaction design.

    I very often see Intranet solutions throwing the poor users from tools to tools all behaving differently. Even the fundamental colour schemes of links etc. is different. A neglected area when you look at many portals.

  3. Sam Marshall Says:

    Great summary Patrick. I liked the point that intranets are like banks, ebay and Wikipedia rolle dinto one. No wonder navigation is often difficult! I fear that this combination inevitably makes intranets a bit like Yahoo a few years back when they tried to be a portal to everything.

    One extra point ot add: if a website is inefficient, it doesn’t really matter so long as it still gets used. But an inefficient intranet costs the company employee time.

  4. For the User, I’d say that one difference is that employees aren’t really “allowed” to browse the intranet or spend a lot of time creating content on the intranet. For some companies, intranets are extremely utilitarian and, with employee roles defined, employees aren’t allowed to play on the intranet. Pressure from managers to be efficient, productive, all that jazz.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      I think you make a very valid point especially about content creation. Part of the Lean Intranet approach is to relieve staff of the burden of having to format and publish their content. As they have not been trained to do this effectively, usually have no idea of what other content is available and as it is an addition to their real job and so is usually a low priority task , it is no wonder that intranet content usually ends up in a mess.

      Many thanks for your comment.


  5. Joe Says:

    The following is an introduction to a paper on Intranet Design Principles for a Bsc university project…as this is an academic rpt it is worded quite stiffly and has references removed…don’t judge too harshly 

    So as to aid discussion of intranet design principles it may be useful to define what an intranet is and how it differs from a website. A website is a collection of web pages or resources served across a public network. This network is known as the World Wide Web (WWW) where individual resources are addressed through use of Uniform Resource Indicators (URI’s) and incorporate the use of standards such as the Hyper Text Mark-up Language (HTML) and Hyper Text Transfer Protocol. The purpose of a website is to market products/services, communicate information or directly sell products. The word communication often plays a part in definitions of what a website is or is for, one such definition relates that the original purposes of websites where to facilitate communication from an organisation to an individual. The scope of the internet and the websites on it have changed so that now; not only is it a means of communication and serving/retrieving information, it is now regarded as the most pervasive platform for entertainment, e-commerce, research, communication and collaboration.

    It was realised by businesses and technology vendors in the 90’s that this rich communication medium could be used to build local web like networks accessed internally to enable document flow management, workgroup collaboration and database access among many other things. From this realisation came intranets; an organisation’s miniature version of the internet, using the same protocols, accessed over its internal network. The previous statement refers to an intranet being smaller than the internet. When comparing a website to an intranet site, the opposite is true; intranets can be vast i.e. wide and deep in their architecture due to the specialised types of information/resources/applications to be found by a better understood user group with specialised needs. The same company’s corporate website may be narrow and shallow where the architecture is designed so that information is easy to find and gets the message across quickly. When discussing the differing users, […(1)] relates that they differ by the fact that the intranet users know the company, its structure and terminology. This fact is also discussed by […] who goes a little further on this subject advising that in addition to […(1)] stated differences, the intranet user will usually have the same browser and operating system, accesses the site for many more varying reasons than a corporate website visitor and that the user population is more accessible for testing, feedback and training. With the differing types of user and resources/information offered by intranets and websites, it can be seen that the goals are different; a website is more often than not used to increase awareness and/or sales and as such revenue. The goal of an intranet is to increase employee performance and thus reduce operating cost through provision of easily accessible information required for user tasks. In summary the differences between an intranet and a website are not found in how they work, the difference is found in how they are used and who uses them which creates differences in how they are designed.

    • patrick c walsh Says:

      Thanks for sharing this. I thought it was really good and I especially liked the last sentence –
      ‘The difference between an intranet and a website is found in how they are used and who uses them’.

      Best of luck and if you need any help in the future please let me know


  6. Joe Says:

    Sorry All…a bit of context for the above comment…I came across this article by Patrick on another site where I had commented on how useful it was to me, Patrick then recommended I post what I had for comment in this blog hence the above report introduction

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