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Keep Your Website Tight As A Drum

kywtadOther firms with e-commerce sites fail to provide any feedback mechanism to let them know how many hits they get or how effective their site is. And simply because they lack such a mechanism, it is not uncommon for companies to believe that their experiments in e-commerce and electronic marketing have failed.

Charles Nichols, marketing manager of software supplier Business Objects, says, “Looking at Web sites is now part of the procurement and decision-making process for some customers, but then they will go to a reseller or shop to actually make the purchase. But you need to know how many visit and are influenced by the Web site.”

He suggests one way of finding out is to give a unique phone number on the Web site which customers call if they want to place their order with a person. “Once they use that telephone number, you know that they have been to the Web site,” Nichols explains. Another is to offer a reference number and a discount from the reseller if the reference is quoted.

Many sites fail to offer customers who choose to visit them any benefits, such as faster delivery or cheaper prices. Nichols says, “You have to encourage people to use the Web, certainly at this stage in its evolution at least.”

Common errors

Amazon.com, for example, provides Web visitors with reviews of books, and customers therefore have an extra motivation to use the company’s site.

It should be obvious that e-commerce site information should be updated at least every day. The Web site of one white-goods manufacturer always features out-of-date products and prices, while for a time the Railtrack site was notorious for not giving a comprehensive listing of train times and special offers. “Their mistake was that they only put a limited subset of their information on the Web – another common error,” says Nichols.

Companies can damage their brand more than promote it by creating unrealistic expectations of the benefits of their Web site. Car manufacturer Fiat, for example, showed a full-motion video in television advertisements for its Web site, but when customers got there, all they found were static photographs.

John Nance, technical services director of software house Unify, adds that many companies fail to remember that Internet visitors often have a less sophisticated grasp of their products or services, and sales material often needs to be rewritten or “dumbed down”. For example, he says, “The Land Registry refers to lot numbers on its Web site, even though many Web visitors don’t understand what they mean by lot numbers.”

Niels Jaeckel, chief technology officer with consultancy Cap Gemini, says many managers are daunted by the technology and choices. Overwhelmed, they fail to start with a strategy based on their objectives and then proceed to find software or a solution that meets their requirements. Instead, they start with the solution and try to make it fit.

“They allow themselves to be sold to, rather than take a pro-active grip on Web-enablement. Many invest in Web sites and then find that what they have is completely inappropriate to their needs and fails to meet their expectations. There are a lot of sharks out there, ruthlessly selling anything with a short-term eye on their profits,” Jaeckel says.

He adds, “I know of several firms which have created a Web site and then found there is an unbridgable gap between the site and the information in their back office, or a gap between the Web site and the network. I frequently see situations where there are problems in the code between the applications. Often applications which perform well in isolation may behave badly in an Internet environment.”

Roland Hanbury, vice-president of Internet adviser NVision, has some sympathy with managers, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises, for it is easier to get Web-enablement wrong than to get it right. There is also a need to explain to staff the benefits of Web-enablement, the changes that it will bring, and how to use the Internet.

Cautionary tale

wsHe relates a cautionary tale: “Failure to train staff in good practices and bad Web security allowed the employees of a large professional services firm to freely download pornography from the Web. Several were fired, and the rest are careful to only access acceptable sites.”

Even these days, it is not unusual to find Web sites where nothing happens, or links go nowhere or drop the connection. Obviously, these alienate potential customers rather than attract them. Remote employees who don’t have full access to the company’s mainframe may be affected, as may business partners who can’t download all the marketing collateral they need.

Meanwhile, other firms make access to information too easy: they happily post all kinds of price and discount-for-volume information on a public site, which any canny competitor can look at. Competitive predators find they can get to a rival’s stockroom through the Web site, because of sloppy Web management, and use that knowledge to adjust their own prices.

Overall, there is, according to several industry pundits, a widespread failure by firms and managers to choose Web technology that is appropriate for their needs. It is not unusual to find companies struggling with extranet or e-commerce solutions that are under-powered. Business Object’s Nichols says, “If a firm wants to run a commercial Web site seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the software has to be robust enough to deal with those demands.”

Equally, if an insurance company, for example, wants all its remote workers to access the host computer so it can provide customers with immediate quotes, the system needs to be able to perform tasks such as keyboard mapping, printing and file transfer.

One reason for a failure to meet expectations is that many Web-enabled applications grow out of internal and legacy applications that have Web-enablement bolted on as an afterthought, at least according to Jan Kilpatrick, managing director of connectivity firm Wick Hill.

He says, “If an application is written with Web-enablement in mind, then security and access control are prime considerations from the outset. But a lot of applications which use the Internet grew out of internal marketing-led programmes and initiatives which extended to include partners on an intranet and then eventually made the leap to be open to customers on an extranet.”

However, Mary Anne Trotman, marketing manager of software house Wall Data, disagrees, saying that many companies abandon investment in legacy applications that can be Web-enabled because of fear that they will not be efficient. “There is no reason why old applications and data cannot be opened up to remote employees, partners or customers, but it’s true that it does have to be done carefully.”

Watertight

Kilpatrick’s point is that many sales initiatives come from the marketing department, not from IT; the IT staff is rarely involved in the creation and planning, “and consequently only lip service is paid to security”, he says. The answer is good consultancy to ensure that the final system is watertight.

With systems where security is poor, there is always the risk that firms may not be aware that they are vulnerable to breaches. “Sometimes companies in effect leave the front door wide open. and anyone can wander around, go right into the back office and go right out again, without anyone being any the wiser,” says Kilpatrick.

A Wick Hill customer once complained that it was having trouble installing a new firewall product. transpired that they were in the middle of a live intrusion and the box had immediately gone into attack rebuff mode. Someone was polling through their IP addresses,” says Kilpatrick. “They had no awareness that they were even at risk, and they had no idea how often the event had happened before.”

Wick Hill’s technical staff dealt with the incident by tracking the attack back to its source, enabling the customer to act and to prevent any subsequent break-ins.

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