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Web Experience Management

  Article published in DM Direct Newsletter
June 28, 2002 Issue
 
  By Ram Srinivasan

Online Businesses Face Tough Challenges

The perils of running an online business are well known. Dramatic examples abound in the demise of many pure-play dot-coms. But businesses that are well managed, focus on the bottom line and provide value to their customers will thrive.

The challenges are the same whether online operations are a division of a larger enterprise, the sole focus of the company or simply an alternate distribution channel. Bluefly.com is a pure-play online retailer; their Web site is their business. VictoriasSecret.com is the most visible online property of The Limited, a highly successful multi-channel retailer. JCPenney.com is a complementary channel for JCPenney customers to obtain information and/or merchandise from a source other than their local store. But all these businesses face the same challenges when attempting to service customers via the Web.

Technical Challenges

The COO or vice president of operations for an online business must consider many different factors when trying to answer the question, "Can I accommodate the number of customers I need to while providing the levels of service that my business demands?"

Typical COO Concerns

Hosting

Performance

Capacity planning

Security

Bandwidth provisioning

Content generation

Hardware provisioning

Content delivery

Software deployment

Maintenance

The number of decisions to be made is enormous. Hosting centers, hardware platforms, software applications and dozens of tools for generating, delivering and monitoring content all produce dozens of different permutations and a few "optimal" combinations. While managed service providers (MSPs) can alleviate all of this responsibility for a fee, very few site operators are willing to cede all mission-critical decisions to a third party, and very few MSPs have been able to provide these services in a truly cost- effective manner to justify the trade-off.

Site operators should make critical decisions about hosting, bandwidth, hardware and software. Beyond these basic platform decisions, though, are dozens of point solutions that can generate marginal improvements in site operations. From among these, only a few will emerge as truly critical components of site infrastructure. One successful example would be content delivery networks (CDNs). Unheard of only a few years ago, CDNs are now considered a standard part of many site platforms.

How can decision-makers determine which technologies are worthwhile investments that will positively impact the bottom line and which are just passing fads with no real ROI? By focusing on the core requirements of managing the end-user Web experience, successful online businesses can cut through the clutter and invest only in technologies that really matter.

Business Challenges

The marketing or merchandising manager for an online business is tasked with driving traffic to the site via effective promotions, converting browsers to buyers with the right offerings in the right place, generating customer satisfaction through superior service and making sure the whole transaction is profitable for the business.

Typical Marketing Concerns

Drive traffic

Content planning

Drive conversions

Content generation

Promotion monitoring

Customer service

Traffic analysis

Profit margin

While many of these challenges are best addressed by experience, good business judgment or even luck, there are tools available to help the most seasoned professionals improve their results and give others a fighting chance to succeed.

Most successful businesses acknowledge that if they take care of the customer, everything else will take care of itself. All revenue, all profits are derived from happy customers. But online customer satisfaction doesn't come just from dazzling graphics, brainless navigation or free shipping. Countless surveys, polls and industry analysts confirm that online customers are satisfied when they find what they want, where they expect it, at a price that's reasonable, and can obtain it quickly without hassle.

Managing the experience of Web users turns out to be a critical task for ensuring online customer satisfaction. User experience on the Web hinges on three critical factors: good content, intuitive navigation and speed. Online success may depend as much on whether a site has the right offering (product or content) at the right price, but those three things will always dictate the customer experience. Customer satisfaction and the likelihood of a repeat visit or purchase hinges on the customer experience, and so site merchandising managers must concern themselves not only with products, prices and promotions, but ultimately with the content, navigation and speed of the site.

The fact that merchandising managers should be concerned with content, navigation and speed shouldn't be surprising at all. Just as a retailer in the physical world would be concerned with shelf space, positioning and display of products, so should an online retailer be concerned with how products are organized, displayed and viewed. Just as a publisher in the physical world would be concerned with content, organization, layout and printing materials, so should an online publisher be concerned with content, navigation and speed.

Just as in the physical world, there are numerous solutions available to help online merchandising managers and publishers monitor, measure and improve the experience for site visitors.

Web Experience Management Solutions Address Online Business Challenges

There are dozens of point solutions for addressing the many pieces of the Web experience management challenge. They can be grouped into four main categories, each having a different impact on the ability for site operators to manage content, navigation and speed:

  1. Content Delivery Networks
  2. Web Measurement and Monitoring
  3. Web Analytics
  4. Web Acceleration

Content Delivery Networks

The most appealing content in the world is useless if it never reaches the end user. Backbone bottlenecks have been the bane of Internet use since the Web came to mass-user popularity in the early 1990s. To address the availability, reliability and scalability of Web content serving, CDNs distribute content from origin Web servers to various points of presence (POPs) around the Internet, often referred to as "the edge," because these POPs are typically the very ISPs through which users connect to the Web.

Because content is replicated from largely remote origin servers to hundreds or thousands of "edge servers," users requesting the content are less likely to suffer the consequences of multiple network hops, Internet congestion or even Web server overload. Content providers are protected from "flash traffic" situations in which many users attempt to access content simultaneously. Web servers are offloaded from serving 100 percent of the content to 100 percent of the users, so site scalability is improved. CDNs go a long way toward addressing many of the concerns of Web experience management but are not by themselves a complete solution.

Web Measurement and Monitoring

In order to understand and/or improve the customer experience, it is necessary to measure it. On the Web "measuring user experience" can mean many different things. The experience of a user consists of the ability to connect to a site, the speed with which pages are loaded, the ease or difficulty of finding what they want and the entire process of acquiring the product or service. Additionally, the success of a site is often measured by how many people visit, how often they return and, of course, how much they spend.

Numerous point solutions are available to measure and monitor all aspects of Web site usability. The most basic services perform a straightforward test of site responsiveness from multiple POPs around the world at various times of day. The resulting reports or alerts help site operators understand and correct availability or performance problems for their site. More complex services try to measure more than just availability or performance, but even go so far as to employ research panels of actual users who are paid to visit a site and provide constructive feedback for usability improvements.

Audience measurement services are different from performance measurement and monitoring solutions in that they typically are not site specific. Services gather global information about Internet usage, either through audience sampling or software agents, in order to provide information about the relative popularity of different sites on the Internet. Advertisers and others use these results to make decisions about how and where to buy advertising.

The limitation common to almost all the point solutions for measuring performance and usability is that they are based on sampling or random testing and not on actual end user experience. No performance measurement service can report which pages are being viewed at what time of day from which cities and what the performance for those actual site visitors is really like. Site operators are left to integrate multiple pieces of information from many different tools to try to get a picture of the actual end-user experience. A comprehensive, integrated Web experience management solution is needed.

Web Analytics

There is a wide range of tools available to address the previously mentioned questions: Where do visitors come from? Where do they go on the site? Why do they leave? How often do they come back? These tools are typically grouped into a category called "Web analytics" and can range from simple Web log analysis programs to more complex data mining analytical packages. The process of using these tools to understand Web site visitor behavior is often referred to as clickstream analysis.

The range of tools available spans two dimensions. On one dimension is complexity (and its associated cost). The most basic tools function by reading Web server logs and producing reports of the information available there. The reports are in the form of lists or bar charts indicating the relative popularity of pages and any information about access patterns that can be gleaned from the logs. More complex, and typically more expensive, tools use other methods such as network sniffers or page tags to track usage and offer more detail about page traversal patterns and visitor behavior, including purchasing behavior.

On the other dimension, the market for these tools is quickly dividing into two packaging options: hosted services (ASP) and traditional software. The software approach offers advantages in advanced analytics, customizability and easy integration with existing CRM packages but calls for trade-offs in higher costs and increased complexity in deployment and ongoing maintenance. Hosted services provide easier, lower-cost deployment and typically provide more real- time information than software packages. The trade- off is that hosted services are typically less customizable and are more difficult to integrate with pre-existing CRM solutions.

Web analytics are as important for the operations team as for the marketing team of an online business. Not only is the operations team responsible for deploying and maintaining whatever package is chosen, but clickstream analysis packages also offer useful information about the profile of users accessing the site (browser versions, connection speeds, etc.) that can be very helpful in planning content delivery options. For the marketing and merchandising teams Web analytics are invaluable tools for understand visitor behavior to refine and improve the site's offerings. But again, site operators are left to pick and choose among point solutions to assemble the exact set of features they need and forced to self-integrate them with measurement and monitoring tools, CDNs and/or Web accelerators. A complete, integrated Web experience management solution would eliminate this challenge.

Web Acceleration

The most obvious tools for improving user experience on the Web can also be the most confusing. It is widely acknowledged that faster pages are better. Numerous studies have shown that users connected to the Web via faster connections will visit more sites, view more pages and return more often. These same users will buy more products and services online.

For these reasons, site operators are eager to invest in technology that will speed Web access for consumers. The ROI is clear and easy - faster sites make more money. However, the proliferation of very different "Web acceleration" products and services and the fact that until recently no single technology had become widely deployed on large e- commerce sites has led to confusion and hesitance on the part of most site managers.

Web acceleration technologies run the gamut from straightforward commonsense to esoteric.

Caching, for example, is a proven performance- enhancing technology. Almost every computer ever made has stored data in a local cache for quick access (e.g., stored in memory rather than on disk). Caches on the Internet are a natural extension of this technology. By retrieving popular content and storing it on a machine other than the Web server, repeated requests for this same content can be serviced more quickly. In its simplest form, a CDN is really a collection of caches located at "the edge."

Dynamic caching attempts to apply caching principles to dynamic content. Truly dynamic content by definition cannot be cached usefully. Most dynamic caching solutions involve a process of breaking Web pages down into cacheable and non-cacheable content and taking advantage of caches for the former. While there is limited benefit for the truly dynamic, non-cacheable content, this process can result in an overall improvement for site performance.

Differential caching, or delta encoding, is another methodology for taking better advantage of caches and delivering dynamic pages with the bare minimum of non-cacheable content. By creating templates for every page a user visits and caching the templates, successive requests for the same page can be served by retrieving only the portion that has changed, called the differential, or delta. Applications that can benefit tremendously from differential caching are limited to those in which users view the same page numerous times with only a small portion of content changing (e.g., stock quotes).

Beyond various caching schemes Web acceleration technologies become more arcane. The speed at which data is delivered over a network is constrained by bandwidth and the speed of light. Until the laws of physics are repealed or all Internet users have access to high-speed connections, the technology alternatives are limited.

Compression techniques can be used to minimize the amount of data sent over the Internet so that it arrives more quickly. If every 50KB Web page could be compressed into 5KB, transmitted and decompressed back into its original form, the Web would be ten times faster. Unfortunately, the number and types of content eligible for compression are limited. Most images are already compressed in GIF, JPEG or similar format.

Content adaptation is the process of figuring out which content is appropriate for which users and delivering appropriate content on the fly. This typically involves software that can sense the end-users browser type, connection speed and/or platform and deliver slightly degraded versions of page elements for slower, less efficient clients. Very few content providers are willing to differentiate among users in this way, delivering "clean" content to some and "degraded" content to others.

Because the technologies are diverse and confusing, so are the number of vendors and product offerings available. Most content acceleration solutions are packaged as software, hardware or some combination (an appliance). Because each provides marginal improvement and requires the introduction of new elements into an already complex network architecture, none has been widely adopted.

If there were a way to provide content acceleration as a service, without expensive hardware or unreliable software, more online businesses would take advantage of the technology. If that service could integrate other features like analytics, measurement and monitoring; then it would be a true Web experience management solution.

Web Experience Management Solutions

As stated earlier, an online business concerned with providing the best possible customer experience should be concerned with good content, intuitive navigation and speed. In order to improve in these areas, site operators need tools to measure and monitor site performance, analyze visitor usage patterns and improve content delivery.

Rather than sort through every point solution available, typically requiring multiple evaluations and purchasing processes followed by integration of the chosen products, site operators should be given a choice to deploy a single Web experience management solution to complement and supplement other site operation technologies.

Analytics, content acceleration and measurement and monitoring: each of these areas plays a critical role in Web experience management. It is the intersection of these disciplines that defines Web experience management - the set of responsibilities that site operators assume in order to monitor, manage and improve the visitor experience.

Ideal Feature Set

  1. Accelerated content delivery
  2. Business intelligence data
  3. Customer usage analysis
  4. Direct merchandising measurement
  5. Realistic/actual performance measurement

Several requirements exist for the ideal Web experience management solution. In order to decrease the burden on site operators, rather than increase their responsibilities, any new technology should be easy to deploy; require no hardware, software or maintenance; and provide all the features needed for a monitoring, managing and improving the visitor experience.

Ideal Packaging

  • No hardware
  • No software
  • Quick, effortless implementation
  • No ongoing maintenance
...............................................................................

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
E-Business and Data Analysis.

Ram Srinivasan, president and chief executive officer, establishes the strategic direction for Fireclick while managing daily operations and technology initiatives. With 20 years of experience in engineering and marketing management, Srinivasan has an in-depth understanding of high-technology companies. His recent speaking engagements include Internet World Fall 2001, CDN Fall 2001, Technologic Partners? Internet Outlook Conference in September 2001 and the Content Aware Networking Conference in June 2001.

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