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Really try to build a corporate Web site that works

How to succeed in business?

The e-business world is a crowded one, and entry barriers are low. So a firm that wants to distinguish its Web site from those of its competitors faces a major challenge. In fact, brick-and-mortar and dot.com companies both face that hurdle, but in different ways. Brick-and-mortar companies that are transitioning to the Web need to provide a smooth, seamless integration between the old and the new. Too often, paper documents are scanned in and posted on the Web site regardless of whether they really fit with an e-business model. But at least many traditional firms have strong brand recognition that helps the customer connect.

For the companies that started out as e-businesses, however, the climb to brand recognition is steeper. No lingering loyalty brings someone to one site over another; these firms are new. But there are some important differentiators where the customer meets the Home Page. Some sites are informative, easy to use and fun, while others are slow-loading, difficult to navigate and frustrating. Moreover, some are visually appealing and invite the visitor to explore, while others are sparse and discourage interaction. Or, at the other extreme, so cluttered and distracting that it's hard to focus on the main point.

Portals are one of the fastest growing types of Web sites on the Internet. Two major approaches are found--one is the consumer-oriented gateway to the Web as offered by Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and many others--news, stock quotes, information categories. The other is the enterprise information portal (EIP), designed to function as extended intranets and organize corporate information in an accessible way. In a 1999 survey by The Delphi Group, more than half the respondents had begun to implement corporate EIPs.

To draw in users, whether external customers or employees, design a Web site that: • highlights the key message of the site, • blends text and graphics in an integrated way, • is easy to navigate and has a site map, • provides meaningful content and a search capability.

For e-commerce, speed is of the essence--after all, users are buying on the Internet to save time. Therefore, extensive graphics and plug-ins are likely to prove discouraging, as are too many layers between the Home Page and the purchase. Customer service phone support is likely to prove very helpful. On the Dell site, users can configure their purchases but have easy access to customer service representatives (CSR) if they have last-minute questions. The CSR, in turn, has immediate access to the customer's selections so far. That smooth integration has helped make Dell one of the most popular purchasing sites on the Web.

Reliability and performance

If you want the e-doors to be open for business around the clock, the Web site must be up and running 7/24. That requires a combination of monitoring, prevention and corrective action. At the most basic level, monitoring can determine when components of the e-business system--such as the Web, database and application servers; load balancers; routers and firewalls--are up or down.

"Deep" monitoring, i.e. monitoring all infrastructure components of a server, can prevent failures before they occur. For example, if the database that keeps a log of Web transactions fills up completely, it crashes. Through comprehensive monitoring, it's possible to detect when the database is approaching capacity, thereby preventing a problem that could shut down an entire Web site. In addition, site and application response times can be monitored to provide warnings when the sites become unacceptably slow to a user.

Other best practices can help a site maintain availability. Most organizations are diligent about backing up their data, but they don't always go the extra mile to execute the restore process, which ensures their systems can be quickly and accurately recovered.

If your firm does not already have expertise in optimizing Web site availability and performance, outsourcing to a company that specializes in reliability services makes a lot of sense. For many companies, outsourcing will be more economical and effective than providing those services in-house. In-house services require a technically skilled staff to be available around the clock, even if no incidents occur. Also, there is considerable cost and expertise associated with setting up the software, hardware and processes for monitoring activities.

One company that provides a reliability solution is SiteRock, which offers 7/24 coverage that keeps Web sites running at their peak potential. SiteRock implements best practices to ensure that e-businesses remain available to customers and perform at an optimal level. In addition to predictive monitoring and preventive maintenance, SiteRock validates alarms and identifies where the problem has occurred, before contacting customers. That keeps the 30% of alarms that are false (resulting from a temporary spike rather than a genuine problem) from impacting the customer at all.

The incentives for keeping a Web site functioning at peak performance are obvious but sometimes underestimated. For example, a publicly traded e-business can lose 25% of its market capitalization in a matter of hours if it encounters serious service problems.

"A positive brand image on the Web is hard to establish, but easy to lose," says Lisa Mandell, VP of marketing and business development at SiteRock.

"One of the challenges that e-business customers face is lack of control of their environment," she adds. The environment includes many elements, such as the customers' bandwidth and the performance impact of third-party banner ads. Without objective testing, it can be difficult to establish the causes of performance degradation.

"That means a lot of finger pointing among the various parties," says Mandell. "We can help out in these situations by testing performance with and without the ad banner, for example, and help resolve these issues."

Customer service and technical support: Help thyself

Customer service, or the lack of it, has emerged as one of the foremost barriers to customer acceptance of e-purchasing. Buying on the Internet may be fast and easy, but something as basic in traditional retailing as returning a product is likely to be a frustrating experience. Some services that specialize just in returns have sprung up--they supply a mailing label and postage that the customer can use for sending back a defective or unwanted product. Other customer-oriented services are also springing up, with Web-centric self-help services complementing or even replacing call centers.

Safe Harbor.com provides a complete outsourcing solution for customer service and technical support. After meeting with the client to plan the implementation, Safe Harbor.com develops a knowledgebase that reflects the universe of known problems and solutions. Depending on customer requirements, Safe Harbor.com then hires and trains a customer support staff or deploys the knowledgebase online (or both).

Academic Systems, a company that provides interactive mathematics and English instruction, uses an online technical support system developed by Safe Harbor.com. When users click their way to "Technical Support" on Academic System's Web site, they are actually leaving the company's Web site to move transparently to a site maintained by Safe Harbor.com. (Patent-pending technology keeps the same URL on screen, however.) The user can then select from a variety of technical areas to seek a solution. Academic Systems believes its online support service provides a valuable addition to its phone-based support.

One of the appealing features of the online technical support provided by Safe Harbor.com is that it uses graphics effectively in its solutions. For example, if the user has chosen to browse Academic Systems' knowledgebase and has selected "Why is my log-in screen all messed up?" a page comes up with a sample screen and diagnosis of incompatibility between a high resolution and large fonts. The user is advised to reduce the screen resolution and is presented with a series of numbered steps, along with a screen captures to show exactly where the user should click on his or her desktop to make the changes. For many users, the opportunity to see graphics is much more effective than a text-only response. At this stage, Academic Systems has implemented only a portion of the total technical support it plans to include, but the process is going smoothly.

What's so hot about XML?

XML has been buzzing around for a while. What is it, and why is it getting so much attention? XML stands for Extensible Markup Language, and it is not surprising to discover that XML is a subset of SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language). The meta-language has a specification called XML 1.0 that defines the syntax; draft specifications called XML Linking Language (XLink) and XPointer that describe ways in which linking relationships can be expressed; and a style sheet specification called Extensible Style Language (XSL). A key aspect of XML is that it conveys the meaning and structure of the data from which it came. HTML, more familiar to Web users, is a markup language that specifies presentation but conveys no information about content. The two can work in tandem, however. XML data can be used to populate HTML tables, eliminating the need to redo them as the data changes.

The reason that XML has captured so much attention is that it provides a way to achieve platform-independent, application-independent exchange of data. Norbert Mikula, chief technology officer at DataChannel, explains why that flexibility is so valuable. (DataChannel develops EIPs for large companies.)

"You can export a database record into XML, send it to Europe and at other end, read the XML file into the target system," Mikula says. "You don't need to know the internal data model the other application uses, just what type of XML message it expects. You don't have to match up with the other person's applications or even know what they are.".

Given the large number of corporate databases and document repositories that are now interconnected through the Internet, the advantages of ready data exchange are obvious. The steady stream of mergers and acquisitions makes such compatibility even more essential.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp. (Alexandria, VA), e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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