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Companies plan Web site upgrades

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Companies rebounding from the economic downturn have begun to free up their budgets and invest in upgrading or even relaunching their Web sites.

In fact, according to a JupiterResearch report released last month titled "Web Site Spending and Governance Trends," 58% of companies surveyed said they plan to relaunch their site in 2004. Additionally, more than 24% said they would spend $1 million or more on incremental upgrades or complete overhauls of their Web sites.

Boosting usability is the main objective of companies surveyed. Improvements can come in many different areas, said David Schatsky, senior VP-research at JupiterResearch and author of the report. "Companies are looking to optimize their sites’ content to garner higher rankings on search engines, build more intuitive navigation and information architectures and improve the graphic appeal," he said.

However, the report concluded that the technology more companies planned to implement and upgrade in 2004 was Web analytics capabilities.

"Not everyone needs to completely relaunch their site," said Bryan Eisenberg, chief persuasion officer and co-founder of New York-based Future Now, a Web consulting company. "But at the very least, sites need to get more aggressive about using Web analytics to set goals and measure performance," he said.

Perhaps the most important thing Web analytics can measure and help fix is the conversion of visitors into buying customers, Eisenberg said. "You can lose potential customers at many points along their visit, but most often it’s because you’re not really meeting their needs for content," he said. "Even the most basic analytics can help you identify where you’re going wrong and need to make tweaks."

One of Future Now’s clients—Rad Direct, an Israeli telecom company—wasn’t happy with its conversion rates until Eisenberg showed that an online shopping cart model wasn’t going to seal many deals. "Site visitors really needed to talk to sales engineers before they could finalize a purchase, so we got rid of the shopping cart and put in a contact form," he said. "Their conversion rate went up by 220%."

Search engine optimization also presents a huge opportunity for sites looking to bolster performance. "More than 90% of visitors now reach Web sites through search engines rather than typing in the URL," said Sally Falkow, a Pasadena, Calif.-based Web content strategist.

"Optimizing your site with content that’s not just a sales pitch but also a useful resource will boost your rankings on searches and resonate positively with visitors," Falkow said. "However, writing smart, compelling content isn’t easy. Often front pages can be leaking funnels. Sites lose an average of 60% of visitors from their front page."

That’s why so many search engine optimization companies have cropped up in the past year, experts said. In addition to crafting content and building underlying code that increases search results, these companies can also help devise a relevant link strategy, Falkow said.

Updated site navigation and architecture are also critical for many redesigns, said Barry Reicherter, VP-interactive for Washington, D.C.-based marketing communications agency Porter Novelli. "When companies first built their Web sites, they too often structured them parallel to their organization’s structure," he said.

Reicherter and other experts said many b-to-b Web sites were also slapped together "just to get something online." Over the years, functions, features and better graphics may have been added, but the sites became difficult to navigate. "If houses were built like these Web sites, we’d all be living next door to some monstrously ugly ones," Reicherter said.

Conducting usability tests before—and after—you redesign will give you the best idea if you’re giving visitors what they want. "It could be something relatively small that’s tripping them up," Reicherter said. "The best redesigns frequently are small, incremental fixes where you think evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This way you’re also not turning off customers who were comfortable with your site as it was."

The return on investment of a performance redesign, assuming problems or opportunities were well-identified, will be variable but significant, Reicherter said. "The bottom line is you’re going to retain users you might have been losing," he said. "And your transaction process will inevitably be smoother, meaning you’ll convert more visitors to active customers."

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