August 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

Corralling Content

(Page 2 of 3)

Such a central hub also helps retailers maintain the look and feel of their brand. A major brand with several international sites and offices can quickly run into problems if it doesn’t have a single content management hub. “In the EU, the team may want to use Java, in the U.S. some may swear by Microsoft’s .Net, while others want to use Open Source because they can get it for free,” MacComascaigh says. That makes for a lack of consistency across the brand, he says.

Lobaugh agrees. “Often the buying group for baby strollers and the one for shoes aren’t adding products the same way. They are not even filling out the same fields, so information is different across products,” he says. It occasionally even happens in the same product line, Lobaugh says. One shoe may have several photos and be described as a vivid brown, while another will have a single image in a hue simply labeled brown.

People issues

At the same time, retailers should understand that, even working with a vendor’s system, it will take time to deploy a new content management system. Lobaugh says six to 10 months is typical. And then there is the retraining of employees who may have become accustomed to storing content on their laptops and updating the web site as they see fit.

“Companies need to have a clear governance system and decide which employees should be able to access which areas. They need to inform people in advance of what is happening and why it is happening and allow ample training time,” MacComascaigh says.

And, they need to evaluate staff and see how they fit into the puzzle, Lobaugh adds. “Now that a company has a new way of doing business, it has to ask ‘Does this require new skills?’” Lobaugh says. “Maybe the person who was once jockeying a spreadsheet and managing data now needs to be more of a strategic thinker, and the company needs to decide if they can train him to do that.”

The need for speed

While it’s critical for online merchants to ensure that content added is correct, consistent and relevant, an e-retailer also must make sure it has the capacity to house it and serve it up. That was especially important for online merchant Ritz Interactive because of the extensive content it manages.

The e-retailer’s boating equipment sites, such as BoatersWorld.com and BoatingOnly.com, offer more than 40,000 SKUs, while its camera and photo e-commerce sites, including RitzCamera.com and WolfCamera.com, offer around 35,000 SKUs. That means there’s a lot of product content to host, says Mark Remington, chief technology officer for Ritz Interactive. To help manage its heavy server load, Ritz uses F5 Networks Inc.’s WebAccelerator.

The WebAccelerator stores viewed pages in a cache, so that if a customer in California, for example, views a web page and another user in Texas accesses the same page 10 minutes later, the page data for the second customer can be pulled from the cache. Because customers don’t have to wait for the site to build the web page from scratch they experience faster page loads and Ritz is able to reduce its server load and bandwidth.

The new system has reduced the back-end server load by 50% across all Ritz retail sites, lowered bandwidth use by 20% to 50%, and reduced download times by 20%, Remington says.“In effect, you get a page that’s built and you save on the back-end processing to build that again,” Remington says.

Ritz paid a one-time fee for the program and a small monthly amount for customer support, says Remington, who would not disclose the fees. The system took about a week to set up, Remington says, and offered a less expensive alternative to adding server capacity. “We saw our web traffic continuing to grow and we didn’t want to keep adding servers and additional back-end technology,” he says.

Most retailers use some sort of caching technology to help serve up pages faster, analysts say. Online retailer Overstock.com, for example, uses Akamai Technologies Inc. for caching, says Geoff Atkinson, vice president of tactical marketing for Overstock.

Consider the customer

Managing server load is critical for ensuring the quality of a customer’s experience on a web site. “Customer expectations continue to grow,” Lobaugh says. Consumers don’t care about the way content is managed or how an e-retailer gets it up on the site, they simply want pages to load fast, look good and work-regardless of whether they are in New York or Alaska, using a PC or a Mac.

That’s where web site performance monitoring companies like Gomez Inc. and Keynote Systems Inc. come into play. Such vendors constantly monitor how e-commerce web sites look across operating systems, browsers and geographic locations-and they alert retailers when there are problems.

Overstock.com, for example, uses both services to monitor its site. When it comes to managing how content will appear across different environments, Imad Mouline, chief technology officer for Gomez, suggests rigorous upfront testing.

Before rolling out new features and functions, Mouline advises merchants to try the technology outside company firewalls and across Internet browsers such as Mozilla’s Firefox, Apple Inc.’s Safari and the various versions of Internet Explorer. They also may want to consider how the web sites look across different operating systems and screen sizes and how fast the pages load with dial-up, high-speed broadband and regular-speed broadband connections.

Even location can have an impact on a user’s site experience, as a consumer in New Jersey may be able to access a New York-based site more quickly than someone in Oregon. Mouline says he’s seen images that render properly with one browser disappear when the site is viewed through another browser. He’s also witnessed pages load quickly on one operating system but return a time-out message on another.

Mouline also stresses close monitoring of vendor-hosted content such as a rating and reviews or personalization systems. There can be conflicts between the coding techniques of a retailer’s IT staff and vendors’ programmers, which can result in pages not displaying properly. As a precaution, retailers should make sure they are informed when vendors update their systems, and monitor and test routinely. “It’s still your site and your brand,” Mouline says. “Users aren’t going to blame a third-party vendor. They will tie it back to you.”

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