Wanted: 'Dashboard' for Web Site Analysis

Web sites are getting more complex and harder to manage, says Michael Weider, founder, chairman and chief technology officer at Watchfire Corp., a Web site management software firm in Lexington, Mass. He recently spoke with Computerworld about the challenges ahead for IT departments, including strategies for cutting costs.

Q: In a time of tight budgets, how can companies reduce the operational costs of their Web sites?

A: During the first run-up of the Web, companies promoted this free-wheeling model where everyone did his own thing. No squelching of innovation. But now, companies have created these enormous Web sites that are very decentralized and nonstandard in nature. For example, we have one client that has as many as 1,500 different Web sites. We have another client that has 10 million pages on their intranet.

So to cut costs, companies are moving toward a standardized model and managing their Web properties [better]. They're trying to stop using 10 different technologies and standardize on one platform and common processes. They're also trying to automate a lot of functions that were done manually in the past.

Michael Weider, CTO at Watchfire Corp.
Michael Weider, CTO at Watchfire Corp.
In addition to standardizing and getting rid of 10 different ways of doing things, there are a lot of opportunities to get rid of a lot content on the Web sites, without hurting the functionality of the Web site. For example, one large financial organization that had 150,000 pages on their intranet was implementing a portal project. A lot of that content was old and it would cost money to convert each page to this new technology, so they pruned it down to 80,000 pages. They went from 450 different Web sites or modules to less than 50 sites.

Q: Will Web sites get more reliable, or does the increasing complexity make them less reliable?

A: Web sites will continue to get more complex, and as they get more complex they get more difficult to make reliable. But the initial problems that people had with reliability on the Internet are getting a lot better. We're not going through the rapid growth that we were before, so it becomes easier for IT to keep up with those changes -- instead of being surprised by Web traffic suddenly tripling and they can't keep up with it.

But Web sites will get more complex as you integrate them more tightly with other operations and you use them for more strategic purposes. As your site gets bigger, more complex and becomes more important to your business, then the reliability and the risk becomes that much more important.

Q: You've talked about the "Web experience gap" before. What is that?

A: It's the delta between the experience the customers are expecting and what your Web site actually delivers.

As Web sites get better and consumers get savvier with the Internet, their expectations continue to grow in terms of what they want to see out of a Web site. Today there's a fairly large gap. One reason is that sites are poorly designed. The other reason is that the site is unreliable -- the design is fine but your implementation of it is poor.

Companies have to attack the subjective and objective issues. The subjective part is whether customers find it easy to do business with you. You can find out with surveys, analyzing traffic patterns and usability assessments. The second issue is reliability of the hardware and even the content itself. There are many sites out there with huge quality problems such as links that don't work, spelling problems, navigation problems and applications that don't function properly. Companies can use automated tools such as ours to go through their Web site and locate those problems and remediate them before customers find them.

Every little thing matters, and if they see those problems, they question how competent you are with everything else.

Q: I suspect a huge amount of data produced from Web logs just sits on a shelf unused. True?

A: A lot of people have invested in Web analytics tools that haven't yielded the results they were looking for. We've been investing in making the information more usable from a presentation standpoint. We're developing our own little dashboard interface to make it more easily digestible.

Plus, a lot of companies haven't allocated the resources necessary to exploit the information that they're gathering. It passes by the wayside and they don't end up doing anything with it. So we're seeing companies appointing a centralized Web management organization that's responsible for the collection and analysis of the data and pushing it out to executives and technical people.

With traffic analysis tools, you can figure out which pages are getting the most traffic and focus your quality investments on those pages, to get the most bang for your buck. In the future, I think we'll see a convergence of analytics technology with other tools to provide a unified Web management dashboard or portal, instead of having 10 different systems.

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