Site Savvy

Here's to 1999! There were plenty of new technologies that took Web sites to higher highs and, unfortunately, lower lows. We experienced one of those lower lows. Betting on new trends and technologies is like playing Chutes and Ladders. It's great when you climb the ladder, but the chute is such a big setback. Like kids, we're rolling the dice again and hoping for a ladder.

One defining principle really rang true for us in 1999: Smart is simple, and simple is smart. In our first attempt to launch a new site back in June 1999, we weren't simple or smart enough. We attempted to deliver a site built on new trends and technologies and grandiose ideas.

Shortly after our failed launch, we brought onboard a consultant from IBM, Steve Kauffman. Steve is one of the lead developers and architects in IBM's content management group. He had worked on some impressive projects, including the digitization of CNN's news archive. We were sure he could help us analyze our systems and help get us back on track. Steve was quick to conclude that we were taking giant leaps by moving from InfoWorld Electric to the new InfoWorld.com. It's those sorts of leaps that may land you on your face.

One of the biggest Web trends in 1999 appealed to us -- dynamic content delivery and personalization.

Why deliver dynamic content and personalization? There's no better explanation than to peer into my e-mail inbox. Site visitor No. 1 writes, "As a CIO, my primary interest in your site is the late-breaking news highlights." Site visitor No. 2 writes, "The focus appears to be news. Everything else we held dear at InfoWorld.com has been downgraded to a lower part of the screen (below the fold?)."Two visitors, same site -- in search of information that feeds their needs. Do we have the information to satisfy both visitor No. 1 and No. 2? Absolutely. We have the information to please many millions of visitors with particular needs.

Can one Web site, InfoWorld.com, be all things to all visitors? Yes, with dynamic delivery and personalization. For visitor No. 1, we could plaster our home page with news, news, and more news. Depending on the specific needs of visitor No. 2, we could deliver prominent coverage of items other than news such as Test Center reviews, Careers, Opinions, and more.

The broader your audience, the greater your need for dynamic delivery and personalization. On one site that provides impressive personalization, My Yahoo, you can easily define what content you want to see on the page and the order in which you want to see it. Whether it's news, the stock market, sports, or more, it's your pick. Defining colors is a nice plus, and it's also useful to be able to set your refresh rate. Each category of information is defined as a content module. You can also easily edit the attributes of the content module. For example, if movies are your big interest, you can decide not only where to display them but also which theaters to include.

With exceptional personalization, your visitors are more likely to stay, but remember that content is king. Despite even the best personalization, visitors will jump ship if the information is not what they want. Although InfoWorld.com doesn't provide personalization at this time, our content keeps IT folks coming back.

We attempted dynamic delivery to the extreme. When our site launched in June, every page request was dynamically generated. Although we did not have the personalization in place, we treated each individual as a recipient of his or her own page. We paid the price for such dynamism -- performance. The load times on our home page varied based on browser, platform and time of request.

For the most part, we experienced load times as much as five to eight times slower than our old site, InfoWorld Electric. Although personalization and dynamic delivery are certainly powerful initiatives for today's best Web sites, don't add them if they cause your site to underdeliver on performance.

(Laura Wonnacott is vice president of InfoWorld.com. Her column appears every other week. Write to her at laura_wonnacott@infoworld.com.)

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