May 2, 2005, 12:00 AM

Firefox Frenzy

David Jilk of Xaffire tells why retailers must be prepared for Firefox

Until recently, it seemed a safe assumption that most end- users would access web shopping sites using Microsoft Internet Explorer indefinitely. Depending on who was counting, more than 90% of hits were from Internet Explorer. The exceptions were typically anti-Microsoft zealots and technology enthusiasts, a vocal but small market segment.

Given how difficult it can be to support multiple browsers on a shopping site--it can be challenging even to make a site work well with the various versions of Internet Explorer--many shopping sites elected to optimize around Explorer and ignore other browsers.

Eating market share

Recently, though, the Firefox browser from the Mozilla Foundation has been eating into Explorer`s market share. According to web analytics firm, its global market share jumped from zero to nearly 8.5% in less than five months, and technology sites such as report rates in the 20% range for web-savvy and home users. How long these market share gains will continue is anyone`s guess, but there are compelling reasons to believe it is a long-term trend and not merely a fad.

Firefox has very respectable roots: The software is a derivative of the Netscape browser, the market leader for several years until Microsoft began shipping Explorer for free with every copy of Windows. The latest version was developed as an open-source project under the auspices of the Mozilla Foundation, a California not-for-profit organization supported in part by AOL`s Netscape division. It passed the 25 million download mark in February, driven by several factors:

  • It is free, and will remain free because of its open source status
  • It is more resistant to spyware, viruses and other security holes than Explorer
  • It controls pop-up advertisements more effectively than Explorer
  • It has new features, including browser tabs, that make browsing more efficient
  • It is not from Microsoft

The increasing popularity of Firefox is important to Internet retailers for several reasons. First, Firefox does not always render web pages in the same way as Explorer does. This is not because of bugs: the HTML standard was never intended to guarantee identical display across browsers.

Weird displays

We first noticed problems with certain web sites displaying incorrectly when our company attempted to sign up for the partner program of a large and well-known system monitoring and application management company using the Firefox browser. The site was designed in such a way that the "submit" buttons of the application forms could not be accessed with Firefox, and, ultimately, the application had to be submitted using Internet Explorer.

Encountering this web site error increased our awareness of Firefox incompatibility among certain web sites, which our team started monitoring during the holiday shopping season. A pattern of less site functionality developed when shopping with Firefox versus Internet Explorer, manifesting itself in various ways including image load and zoom issues or misplaced text, and it`s now a standard topic of awareness we discuss with our customers.

The second reason retailers should be aware of the impact of Firefox is that Firefox blocks pop-up windows by default, so if your shopping site uses pop-ups, customers may not see them.

Third, for users who have switched to Firefox, avoiding Explorer is probably more important than buying from you. These users have the choice of loading Explorer to operate your site, or clicking over to your competitor. Not only is the latter easier, but many such users are tired of spyware and pop-ups and will resist loading Explorer in any event. Online banking sites can hold onto these customers for a while, since it is painful to change banks, and travel sites may get a call to the 800-number, but online retailers are in the unfortunate position of having set a high standard for online functionality in a market with low switching costs.

Finally, Firefox`s increasing market penetration is part of a larger trend toward browser diversity, which makes it a strategic rather than tactical site issue.

Assess your site

To deal with this issue, the first step is simple: assess your shopping site for Firefox compatibility. This can be done in a few hours by a member of your technical or quality assurance staff. Simply exercising the site`s capabilities will provide a good picture of the impact. If you are fortunate, or your site was never optimized for Explorer, Firefox users will see an attractive site that functions without incident.

More likely, it will be functionally sound but will have some warts that detract from its appearance or make it more difficult for customers to see or find information they are seeking. The worst outcome is that certain functions of the site do not operate properly; for example, critical buttons cannot be accessed or important information is not displayed.

Another way to evaluate the impact of Firefox on your site is to use your web analytics tool to report purchase conversion rates by browser. However, this is not a comprehensive measure of the impact, both because many shoppers will buy later in a physical store and because brand image degradation is likely not reflected in immediate purchase statistics.

A session recording and replay tool can help with these measures, allowing you to sample Firefox sessions, see what the user saw, and how he or she responded. Together, these tools could surface problems that were not apparent from your exercise of the site, and can give you an indication of which incompatibility issues are most critical to resolve.

Improve functionality

Your next step depends on how your site fared in the evaluation and how important your brand image is. If the site is functionally difficult to use with Firefox, you will likely lose customers, both online and offline, as a recent study by Forrester Research indicates that 70% of consumers use the web to do pre-purchase research. At the rate that Firefox market share grows, the brand impact will be severe.

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