Losing customers to slow downloading and broken links? A variety of free and low-cost online repair shops will help you maintain a smooth-running site
When Jackie Monticup first launched her Magictricks.com Web site, in 1997, she did it herself -- just as many small-business owners do. Monticup and her husband had been searching for a way to expand the reach of their small Charlottesville, Va., magic shop, and the Web seemed to be a perfect fit. So Jackie Monticup stayed up nights learning how to code HTML.
But Monticup recently learned an important fact of online life: creating the site is only the first step in running a successful Web business. Though more than 90% of her store's revenues were coming from the Web, potential sales still were slipping away. Many of the visitors to her site simply never ordered anything. Of those who reached the order page, at least a quarter would jump off before buying. And some would call her toll-free number asking questions about ordering that she thought the site had clearly explained.
As many small-business owners are discovering, online shoppers are a tough bunch. The slightest inconvenience or glitch will send them scurrying to another site before they even think about entering their credit-card numbers. During last year's holiday-shopping season, for example, online shopping carts were abandoned 88% of the time, according to Edd Johns, director of intelligence at technology-marketing firm Resource Marketing Inc., based in Columbus, Ohio. "A lot of companies have opted to build E-commerce themselves, and there's nothing wrong with building it themselves. But they need to make sure the experience is foolproof -- and failproof," he says.
Unfortunately for such do-it-yourselfers, it is rarely either. There are myriad ways in which Web sites can frustrate a visitor, and dealing with those problems can be a daunting task for the neophyte. Slow downloading, broken links, browser incompatibility, navigation problems, and site downtime -- all those glitches can mean lost revenues.
One answer is to hire an expert -- either in-house or as a consultant -- to maintain a site. But with even part-time consultants charging $75 to $150 an hour, that strategy can far exceed the resources of small businesses with homegrown sites. A far simpler and cheaper solution can be found right on the Web: "you fix it" sites that offer low-cost Web-site-maintenance services, ideal for the small-business owner moonlighting as a Web designer.
Monticup, for example, was able to diagnose one problem that plagued her magic-shop site using a free Web tool called SuperStats, provided by MyComputer.com. With SuperStats, she tracked the path of visitors and discovered that they were being drawn into and diverted by her "Magic Library," shown on the site's front page. Surfers would access the library, browse its information about magic, and then follow links to the last page of the site without ever seeing the ordering information. Once Monticup redesigned her home page to highlight magic products, visitors began to go right where she led them -- and the subsequent boost in sales contributed to her best second quarter ever. Typically, says Monticup, her company's sales drop 20% between the first and second quarters. This year her sales were down less than 5%.
If Web pages take more than eight seconds to load, sites lose about a third of their visitors, says NetMechanic CEO Jeff Morgan.
In addition to MyComputer.com, companies that operate Web-maintenance sites include NetMechanic, Microsoft's SiteOwner, Netscape's Web Site Garage, and LinkAlarm. Each offers a range of services with which you can manage and maintain Web sites; some are free and others you must pay for. For instance, for 1¢ per page, LinkAlarm lets business owners check Web links to make sure they're working. Three sites -- Web Site Garage, NetMechanic, and SiteOwner -- promise to register your site with a limited number of search engines at no charge. What do you get for nothing? SiteOwner will submit your site to 6 search engines, and NetMechanic and Web Site Garage will submit it to 12. (For a full range of services and prices, see "Comparing the Mechanics," below.)
In addition, Web-maintenance sites can help solve the following types of problems:
HTML glitches. Sites built by business owners who are new to HTML coding are especially at risk for performance problems. If the coding doesn't work properly, visitors may have trouble navigating or viewing portions of the site. To avoid such difficulties, Avram Berman, owner of a small telemarketing company based in Rochester, N.Y., relies on a tool from NetMechanic called HTML Toolbox. When Berman launched his site, a few years ago, he built it himself using Microsoft FrontPage. It seemed easy enough, but when he tried to access the site using America Online, it locked up. No visitor using AOL could see it. Using HTML Toolbox, he discovered that coding mistakes were causing the trouble. Though HTML Toolbox can automatically correct such errors, Berman -- the hands-on type -- opted to make the repairs himself. Today he routinely uses the service to check his coding.
Browser incompatibility. Obviously, all sites need to work with the various browsers that potential customers and other visitors use. Nonetheless, says Jeff Morgan, CEO of NetMechanic, "many small- business owners buy a copy of Microsoft's FrontPage, build a Web site, and never look at it with a Netscape browser or with WebTV. They go to show it to someone on their own PC, and they pull it up with a different browser, and sure enough, the site doesn't look the same or doesn't work." With one operation, HTML Toolbox allows owners to find out whether all their HTML coding tags are supported by all versions of the major browsers.
Broken links. Few things frustrate users more than clicking on a link that takes them nowhere. Yet discovering and fixing those links may be difficult. When Federica Canada-Bouton launched the Web site for her New York City showroom, Fede Antiques, Vintage & Collectibles, in December 1999, she knew that she wanted to manage it herself. But like Berman, she had only just learned HTML coding and needed a little extra help. Since she had used Microsoft's bCentral site for small businesses to get her Web site up and running, she turned to bCentral's SiteOwner, which contains a handful of maintenance tools. Using SiteOwner's free link checker, Canada-Bouton discovered that some of the links at her site, www.fedeantiquevintage.com, were broken. "I couldn't tell from where I was, because what I understood about hyperlinks obviously wasn't enough," she says. The tool was easy to use: she just entered her site address and the link checker looked at all the links and meta tags. However, unlike HTML Toolbox, the link checker could fix only some of the errors that it pointed out.
Even Web experts find such maintenance tools useful. When Preferred Brands International, a $4-million company that sells Indian and Thai ready-to-eat entrÃ©es, launched an E-commerce site, in 1998, Webmaster Akila Iyer had no trouble keeping track of all her pages and making sure the links worked. As www.tastybite.com grew, however, Iyer found it more difficult to keep up with maintenance of the site, on which the company sells its Indian food. "Because it's a specialty market, we do need to make sure anything we have up there is user-friendly," she says. When some customers complained about broken links for sending E-mail, Iyer signed up with NetMechanic's HTML Toolbox service, which automatically checks links.
Slow-as-molasses downloading. Long downloading times drive customers off sites, period. "We feel that if a page is taking more than 30 seconds to load, there's a high chance of abandonment," says Johns of Resource Marketing. Others think that the time window is even smaller. If Web pages take more than 8 seconds to load, sites lose about a third of their visitors, says NetMechanic's Morgan.
To combat slow downloading, NetMechanic offers GIFBot, an image-optimization tool. GIFBot works by reducing the size of GIF and JPEG images on a Web page. Berman, the telemarketing-company owner, uses it to compress his graphics so that his site, www.ajba.com, will load more quickly. "It's a nice, quick interface that will show you several images and the compression levels, so you can select the one you want," he says.
What site? Finally, not only may visitors have problems when they reach a site, but they may not be able to see the site at all. "Just because it's up for you doesn't mean that anyone else can see it," says Brett Error, chief technology officer at MyComputer.com. There are many on-ramps to the Internet, and some may become blocked and cut customers off from viewing your site. To deal with that situation, both MyComputer.com and NetMechanic offer tools that help business owners determine whether their sites are widely accessible. For instance, MyComputer's WatchDog monitors Web sites round the clock, checking them as frequently as every two minutes. It also has five locations around the globe from which it can verify that a site is available. With that information in hand, site owners can demand better service from their hosting companies and, in turn, give better service to their customers.
Maintaining a Web site poses many challenges for the small-business owner playing Webmaster. But these simple, low-cost tools can fix performance problems, making it easier for customers to get their shopping carts down those virtual checkout aisles.
Rachael King is a freelance writer based in Glen Ridge, N.J.
Comparing the Mechanics
Need minimal help? You may not have to pay a dime. Need more? A regular plan, at low cost, can help you keep your site free of trouble
|Web site||Services offered||Price|
|LinkAlarm||Checks links||1¢ per page ($10 minimum purchase allows 1,000 pages to be checked)|
|Microsoft's SiteOwner||Checks links, meta tags, and spelling||Free|
|Submits site to 6 search engines||Free|
|Manages customer E-mail lists||Free|
|Determines search-engine ranking||Free|
|Submits site to 400 search engines, provides banner advertising, sends targeted E-mail to customers||$19.99 a month to $499 a year, depending on plan|
|MyComputer.com||Checks links||$59 a year and up|
|Analyzes site traffic||Free to $19.95 a month or $200 a year, depending on plan|
|Monitors site downtime||$19.95 to $99.95 a month, depending on plan, plus $19.95 onetime setup fee|
|Submits site to search engines||$59 a year and up|
|NetMechanic||Checks links, repairs HTML, checks page loading time||$35 to $200 a year, depending on plan|
|Monitors site downtime||Free to $9.99 a month, depending on plan|
|Speeds up image loading time by compressing graphics||Free|
|Submits site to search engines||Free for 12 search engines; $9.99 for 100|
|Netscape's Web Site Garage||Checks links, HTML||Free|
|Speeds up image loading time by compressing graphics||Free|
|Monitors site traffic||Free|
|Submits site to 12 search engines||Free|
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