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How to decide format for posting catalogs

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When publishing a catalog on the Web, one of the most important considerations is whether to use a dynamic or static Web page design.

Static Web pages are generated ahead of time and stored as separate HTML files on the Web server, typically as a single file per product group. Each page is generated once and displayed many times, similar to a printed catalog.

As with printed catalogs, updating data or changing the layout of static Web pages often requires generating all-new catalog pages, which can be time-consuming.

Dynamic Web pages

Dynamic Web pages are generated by the Web server each time the server receives a request for a catalog page. During the development of a dynamic site, a template is designed with the look of the dynamic pages and with placeholders for the catalog data.

The catalog content is stored in a database separate from the template. The content is added to the template when the customer browsing your site requests a catalog page.

The key to deciding if a Web catalog should be based on dynamic or static pages is to examine the catalog and how it will be used and updated.

Here are the main criteria to consider when selecting a design:

  • Catalog size. How many pages, SKUs and product groups will be in the electronic catalog? All other things being equal, it is difficult to justify the development costs to implement a small dynamic catalog.

    However, if the catalog consists of thousands of product groups, the cost to develop and maintain the static page generation program could quickly exceed the cost of a dynamic catalog.

    Maintaining many thousands of static HTML files and retaining and managing backups of the files at each update is time-consuming.

  • Frequency of content changes. Changes to the product title, descriptive text, groupings and others, must be accommodated by the electronic catalog.

    Changes to content can be easily handled in dynamic catalogs by simply replacing the catalog database. In fact, dynamic catalogs can be designed to be updated daily.

    Updating content on static catalogs requires either the regeneration of all pages or the design of a change detection mechanism that will spot which product groups have been changed and permit regeneration of only those pages.

  • Frequency of price updates. The prices in some catalogs are updated weekly, others only every six months. The design of the catalog system must take this into account.

    Prices on dynamic pages can be changed easily by updating the catalog database and replacing the live database with the updated one. If price updates are frequent enough to justify it, the price update process can be automated.

    Updating prices on static pages requires regeneration of the pages or a conscious design decision to eliminate prices from the product pages. Eliminating prices from the product page usually severely decreases the utility of the Web catalog.

  • Frequency of page design changes. Changing the background color on all the catalog pages or correcting a misspelling fall at one end of the page design spectrum, with completely changing the page layout at the other end.

    It is fairly easy to change the design of a dynamic template and thus to change the look of every product page in the catalog. If frequent changes to the product pages are required to keep the site fresh, dynamic pages would be the best choice.

  • Page customization requirements. Highlighting a single product page might be important in some instances.

    Dynamic pages are stamped from the same template. As such, it may be difficult or impossible to customize individual pages.

    However, if a number of products are marked "on sale" in the catalog database, the code behind the template can be enhanced to check if an item is on sale and, if so, to then change the look of the generated page.

    Static pages can be edited and customized on a page-by-page basis. However, the next time all catalog pages are regenerated, the new pages will replace the old pages, including any that were individually customized.

  • Portability. Knowing which server platforms a Web catalog can run on can be important in some cases. Some companies are satisfied if the Web catalog will run on a widespread industry standard computer and operating system, and others require that the catalog can be ported to other platforms.

    Dynamic pages are generated by code or a script and, as a result, such catalogs frequently can be platform dependent.

    Static HTML files can be placed on any server. However, the drill-down pages used to navigate to a product and a

    PO system that derives pricing data dynamically from a database can limit the portability and may make the catalog platform dependent.

  • Cost. The initial one-time development cost for a dynamic catalog is higher, as is the cost of more powerful servers capable of supporting dynamic pages. However, the performance of a carefully designed dynamic catalog, vs. a poorly designed catalog, can easily vary by a factor of 10.

    Downstream costs can be significantly lower than with static catalogs because changes and maintenance can be much less time consuming.

    Initial static catalog development costs can be lower. However, all global changes to the catalog require that the page generation program be modified, tested and run to regenerate every catalog page. Program maintenance and regeneration can be time consuming and costly.

    Dynamic advantages

    Dynamic Web catalogs have considerable advantages in their flexibility and responsiveness in making catalog changes over static catalogs. While dynamic Web catalogs may require increased development time and somewhat greater hardware costs, their ongoing maintenance costs are lower.

    Larger catalogs with dynamic content usually require more maintenance and, as a result, tend to benefit most from implementation as dynamic Web catalogs.

    Static sites work best for smaller catalogs or for larger catalogs with static content. In larger catalogs, static sites often are less costly to implement but more costly to maintain and to change.

    Michael Cohen is corporate accounts director for Millstar Electronic Publishing Group, Langhorne, Pa..

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