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Under The Hood: More Web Sites Valuing Good Content

Pamela Derringer

October 1, 2004

Pamela Derringer finds the latest web site upgrades are less about flash and more about content in an effort to draw visitors and build credibility.

If you didn't join the throngs flocking to web site developers when business spending began to flow after the first of the year, don't worry. Your web site won't suddenly look glaringly retro-the latest upgrades are more about substance than design. But you may be missing an opportunity to become a destination site for customers and prospects by offering valuable information. And you may be stuck paying for outsourced site maintenance that you could do cheaper-and faster-inhouse.

The impetus for change in the last few years has been the broad adoption of high-speed Internet access, explained Stephen Turcotte, president of Backbone Media. The increase in typical downloading speed has not only given designers the freedom to create more complex and imaginative sites, it's also encouraged corporations to load their sites with white papers and other resource materials that may be helpful to prospects and customers.

Hewlett-Packard recently completed a major upgrade to its main site with particular emphasis on beefing up its private business-to-business section. The section now offers a library of 4,000 white papers and case studies, plus improved search navigation features and customized product information for individual accounts to help large customers find what they need quickly, according to Stephanie Acker-Moy, HP's vice president of Internet and marketing services.

"We conducted extensive customer research to get feedback on the sites. Based on that feedback, we identified three key priorities: more robust and relevant content, better navigation and site design, and improved global capabilities," said Moy. Those areas became the focus of a six-month upgrade project, Moy said. "It all goes back to the war for the customer and our expectation that these site upgrades will drive stronger customer relationships. The payoff is customer loyalty."

An expanded resource library was also a key component of the new web site built from scratch this spring Intertek's $120 million ETL Semko division, which tests and certifies electrical, HVAC, semiconductor, and building materials. By expanding the site to 700 pages and boosting the search and navigation capabilities, the site has become an invaluable resource for engineers who need to know the certification requirements for new products under development, explained Mike Parker, manager of global Internet marketing.

"We deal with an intellectually driven audience that needs to get its products in and out of testing as soon as possible," Parker said. "If we can demonstrate via our content that we have the expertise they need, we will get their business."

Content Crazy

Broader content isn't the only noteworthy change in recent web site upgrades, Backbone Media's Turcotte said. He outlined these examples:

  • Web sites are more software-based, relying on style sheets and complicated applets for user identification and tracking.
  • Many sites use content management tools to streamline site construction and simplify data changes. Updates are faster and cheaper, initiated directly by the inhouse staff closest to the information. This is particularly helpful to companies that have laid off their internal Web support teams or relied on outside service firms that are unresponsive or costly.
  • Website design is moving away from flash, especially for its own sake, and focusing on relevant content.
  • WWeb sitesare more ROI accountable. Companies are paying close attention to the visitor-to-sales ratio-with measurable results in hand, companies are willing to spend money to improve their sites. One cost-effective way to boost ROI is through search-engine optimization, said Turcotte, whose firm provides such services. Marketing departments realize that their first Web contact with a new prospect may be via Google or Yahoo; therefore, search-engine optimization can offer a strong ROI, especially when it enables B2B companies with expensive products and a solid sales/closing ratio to reach key audiences.

Turcotte noted that company spending generally falls in the following ranges for web site upgrades these days:

  • Small businesses ($500,000 to $2 million in annual revenue) typically spend $8,000 to $20,000 for a redesign and $10,000 to $30,000 annually for search engine optimization, depending on the competitiveness of the marketplace.
  • Small to medium-sized businesses ($5 million to $20 million) spend from $20,000 to $80,000 for redesign and $30,000 to $80,000 annually for search engine marketing.
  • Midsized businesses ($20 million to $200 million) earmark $30,000 to $60,000 for upgrades and $80,000 to $200,000 annually for search engine marketing.
  • Corporations over $100 million often spend hundreds of thousands for an upgrade and hundreds of thousands annually for search engine optimization and advertising.

Go for the Search

Consulting costs are only a small portion of the tab for web site revamps, according to Parker of Intertek ETL Semko, whose century-old parent company was founded by Thomas Edison. This divisional site was rebuilt on a shoestring consulting budget, supplemented by intensive effort from an inhouse team involving 120 people for varying amounts of time, he said.

The three-month reconstruction, which followed several iterative improvements, was finished in April. It features a large increase in content to help product designers with certification requirements and a three-faceted search engine to help them find what they are looking for by keyword, category, and parametric lookup.

ETL Semko also worked with Backbone Media to beef up its Internet search engine optimization, after measurable traffic gains at the old site convinced the company that the site was not just a marketing vehicle but a centerpiece of its business strategy for increasing leads and growing sales. Search optimization in the previous upgrades had increased visitor traffic by 150% to 90,000 a month, and requests for more information grew by 620% in a year and a half, Parker said.

For Schwartz Communications, nothing short of an all-new web site could do justice to the portfolio or the image of the 14-year-old agency, the largest PR firm in New England, according to Steve Schwartz, president and co-founder.

"We wanted a showcase for our 120 current clients and the results we've achieved for them," Schwartz said, and that required plenty of room for agency success stories in multiple industries. "We didn't approach it from a cost perspective but simply to make it the very best we could create." Schwartz noted that, like Intertek ETL Semko, the greatest cost was for inhouse time.

With a flash entry, the latest search engine optimization, and a new content management backbone, Schwartz now has a site that functions better, looks sharper, and can be updated locally without channeling everything through the Webmaster.

"We now have a platform for showing off our work," he said. "It's a trophy case for us."

Pamela Derringer is a Mass.-based freelance writer. This article originally appeared in American Executive Magazine.

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