Basic errors plague e-commerce sites

Commercial Web sites have come a long way from earlier "billboard" sites that focused on providing information only. Today's Web site is truly an enabling technology, which allows transactions to be conducted electronically, lets customers search a retailer's database of currently available stock, gives companies valuable marketing information on site visitors, and serves up custom pages in real-time that specifically match each visitor's particular needs.

Along with these innovations, however, comes complexity, and with complexity, the potential for error. When creating a dynamic Web site, for example, planning for every possible combination of events is almost impossible, and, no matter how proactive the Web architect is in planning for potential errors and bugs, they will inevitably occur, and they will occur frequently. While some of these errors will become evident during routine checks and maintenance, some errors may be so obscure that they only become visible to a small percentage of visitors, going unnoticed by the company hosting the site for many months.

A surprisingly high number of Web site visits are aborted because the site was inaccessible, too slow, or had significant errors. According to Yankee Group, Web site failures cost businesses in the UK pound 565 million last year, and will cost ?715 million this year. Larger businesses are not immune to these failures, despite their best efforts, technical expertise, and considerable budgets. A recent Web site audit of firms in the FTSE Top 100 revealed that 97% of those corporate sites don't function as they should.

One would assume that the largest corporations in the UK would have the resources to create a functional, error-free Web site, and that companies in this category would employ staff to constantly look after the status and accuracy of those sites. Of course, most of them do, but even so the audit revealed widespread poor performance and egregious mistakes that may cause visitors to contact the company through a more costly channel, or worse, give their business to a competitor with a more accessible Web site.

These noteworthy failures are not the result of a lack of technical expertise, but rather of a failure to apply basic functional control checks, measures, and processes that are regarded as the norm in most other aspects of a company's business. For the most part, the professionals that create and maintain these corporate Web sites are trained and highly competent, and the corporations themselves devote a considerable budget to the process. A large corporation must devote a great deal of time and money to creating and maintaining a Web site that achieves a clearly defined set of commercial and functional objectives.

That Web site is often their customers' first avenue of communication with the company, it provides information, and often provides a platform for conducting and supporting commercial transactions. The site may even function as a major sales channel, or a tool for customer support. But despite the phenomenal amount of money spent on Web site development and maintenance, these large sites (which are often in excess of 1,000 pages) are prone to error due to simply failing to apply basic quality controls and the lack of a regular audit.

The errors that plague major Web sites are easy to make, but fortunately, they are just as easy to correct. Unfortunately, they are very difficult to detect, identify, and locate, especially in dynamic sites that undergo continuous change. A comprehensive audit must go way beyond checking a site for page availability, load time, and broken links, the audit itself must be geared towards the large, dynamic commercial sites common to most large corporations, and it must check for coding mistakes, security flaws, and JavaScript performance.

All other management processes are routinely audited. Given the level of spending a major corporation often devotes to creating a commercial Web presence, it makes sense to implement best practices that include regular audits in this area as well.

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