In a traditional business, it's easy to tell whether things are going well or not: you count up the money. If more is coming in than going out, you're happy. If more is going out than coming in, you make changes. More staff here, less staff there, training here, restructure there. As long as things aren't too disastrous, you have time to make these kinds of changes.
Doing business online isn't like that. Online businesses appear and shut down within months. The risks are much higher, and the timeframes are much shorter. If things aren't going well, you rarely have a lot of time to make the corrections that are necessary before the losses on investment become too great. And a competitor can appear literally overnight to take business away from you.
It is imperative, therefore, to keep a very close and constant watch on how your online business is working, and to be able to respond quickly to any problems. The imperative is no less great if your online business is doing well: how can you know if you could be doing things better? And how do you know if your competitors are looking at what you do, and improving on it?
There are several different ways to look at your online business and checking its effectiveness. Some of these reside within your system and operate like robotic "agents", running processes and testing transactions, reporting back on how the technology works. Others run from outside your firewall, looking in.
Both views are essential for gaining a complete picture of your online operations, their strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, and fairly obviously, no single product can provide both.
Inside the firewall, tools have been available for some time from the traditional "big iron" players in enterprise computing: names like Unicentre, Hewlett-Packard and Tivoli. Younger players include BMC Software, whose Patrol product has already received quite a high degree of acceptance. There are also a number of start-up companies providing specialised analysis of Web databases, or server reliability.
Increasingly, though, the emphasis for online operators has been on customer service: how can your site better serve your customers, turn browsers into buyers, and keep them coming back. For that, you need the view from outside.
One approach is taken by companies like Vividence, which employs demographically selected Web users chosen to match your target audience. Using Vividence's custom software, these surfers act like customers going to your site, carrying out commonly required tasks. As well as the human-response feedback, Vividence provides more detailed technical feedback via its software. Typically, this kind of service is carried out on a one-off basis, and generally while your site is fairly new.
A different approach that has been gaining in popularity over the past 12 months is subscription-based services. Rather than buying software, which you install and configure, you pay a service provider to browse your site using intelligent "agent" software (as used in search engines) which remains installed on the provider's systems. You then receive reports on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.
The key advantages of such an approach are that you don't have to install any software, so there isn't an additional administrative burden or a "wild card" that could affect the stability of your system. Also, the intelligent agents can run 24 hours a day if you require them to - Vividence's human subjects need to sleep occasionally. Also, you only pay for what you need: a six-month analysis of the site, running a few key processes once or twice a day, will cost considerably less than a 12-month service running almost constantly.
WebCriteria is one company that offers such a subscription-based service. Its software agent, called "Max", can be trained to perform two different tricks: site analysis and task analysis. Site analysis tests the effectiveness of your site according to three criteria: load time (how long does it take to load a page); accessibility (how long does it take Max to find a particular page) and content (is the site any good once Max gets there). The content analysis is also able to return some feedback on the technological side of the site. In addition, Max can simulate a customer surfing at anything from a 28.8 dial-up to a T1, so you get information about a full range of user experiences.
Task analysis is slightly different. In task analysis, Max is instructed to perform a commonly required user function. For example, you might want to know how easy it is to register for membership of your site, download data sheets or order a particular type of product. Max estimates how long it would take an average user to read and understand the information on a page, find navigation tools (such as hot spots on an image map) and enter required information into fields.
How much you pay for the service depends on the balance of site analysis versus task analysis that you require, and how often you want Max to perform these tests.
BMC, maker of Patrol 2000, has also recently entered the subscription-based analysis fray with its acquisition of Evity and its flagship product, SiteAngel. SiteAngel takes a transaction-based view of a client Web site, similar to the task analysis conducted by WebCriteria's Max. Customers can request different tasks to be performed on their sites, different types of analysis, and different frequencies of analysis. BMC refers to each task as an "angel", and charges from $US6 to $US65 per angel, per day, depending on how busy each angel is going to be.
The obvious advantage that BMC has, strategically, is the integration of SiteAngel, which offers the outside-in view, with Patrol 2000, which analysis the technology from inside the firewall. Data generated by SiteAngel can automatically populate reports in Patrol, offering a transaction-based view of the back-end technology. What this means is that, rather than merely being told that a particular transaction is slow or inefficient, you can also learn what back-end systems are touched upon in the process of that transaction, and therefore be better equipped to make corrections.
BMC's director of global marketing for service provider solutions, the division responsible for SiteAngel, is Jason Andrew. Andrew says that the main market for this type of software at present is the service-provider market, because they have a marketing requirement to demonstrate the stability and efficiency of sites they are hosting. Uptake amongst end-user companies hosting their own sites has been somewhat slower, because those companies are still looking at the type of back-end analysis Patrol and other products of its ilk provide. Once they're certain the infrastructure is sound, then they start looking towards outside-view products like SiteAngel.
According to Andrew, subscription-based services "fit into the whole applications services provider and management service provider marketplace", as well as appealing to sites that are hosting their own services and not going to an outsourcer. Such sites "still require an independent, outside view of what their sites are like".
The other "hot" area is customer relationship management, and services such as online help desks, which, though not directly revenue-generating, are important for customer service.
"You want to make sure your customers can get there and use the service," says Andrew, "and that's got nothing to do with dollars."
Given the cost associated with such services, the question arises of when it becomes economically necessary for a company to begin looking at Web site analysis for its online business. Andrew is reluctant to draw a rule of thumb. Even if the amount of business a company is currently transacting through the Web is zero, but it wants to drive customers to the Web, he believes the company should be looking at external performance measurements.
"The minute the organisation decides that the Web is a primary point of communicating with end users or providing information or having transactions occur, it should look at this kind of service.
"It comes down to the point where the company starts to see a proportion of its business transacted across the Web site. If the site is providing static information about the company, it's different to providing online purchasing or actual services. Then they'll want to know about core usability, and the performance for end users."
Experience means learning from your mistakes and the mistakes of others. You can save your online business a lot of time and hassle by learning from the mistakes Web site analysis tools commonly encounter:
* Can't find it, can't do it - it needs to be easy to find what your users want to do on a site - if they can't find out how to send you an e-mail, for instance, they may not bother to do business with you at all. An easily accessible site map is one solution, or even incorporating site functions like contacts or return enquiries in the search engine. A search engine that only leads to products can be frustrating to a user.
* Be what you do - if a customer has been referred to your site from another site, they may not go in already knowing what line of business you're in. Unbelievably, many companies' Web sites make users click several layers down before this seemingly simple information becomes clear. State up front what you do, and more users will hang around.
* Won't you please help me? - In the race to go online, many businesses forget that they also have telephones. If customers need help with a query urgently, they will not want to send an e-mail or consult the FAQ. Make sure that real-time help is available if needed.
* Graphical sludge - animations, detailed graphics and flashy movies are all well and good when you're viewing them on your LAN inside the company, but remember how many of your customers have dial-up connections. Most of them won't hang around for the floorshow to get information from you.
* Are you now, or have you ever . . . do you want customers to sign up for e-mail services or site registrations? Ask them their name, address and which of your products they're interested in - nothing more. Overly invasive questions in the registration process sends many privacy-aware customers running.
An interesting side effect of subscription-based services is that, as well as looking at how well your own site operates, you can check out your competitors. While the exercise provides a useful comparison, it can also be a source of tips on how to make your own service better.
Say, for instance, you're operating a bank, and you're unhappy with the uptake by customers of your online banking service. You could use SiteAngel or WebCriteria to check out competing online banking services, to see what they're doing better, and adjust accordingly. Maybe they have fewer screens to traverse before the sign-in, or they make commonly requested functions like account balances more straightforward to find.
WebCriteria provides a database of e-commerce sites for its customers to analyse using its tools, and can provide "benchmark" reports for common tests on major e-commerce sites like Amazon.com. Of course, there are legal implications to all this, and BMC's Jason Andrew says that "it's the customer's responsibility". BMC requires its customers to sign agreements accepting responsibility for their activities, even though these activities are carried out by software on BMC's system. "If they're accessing information they're not supposed to access," says Andrew, "it's their liability".