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5 on 5: Software Comparison

Posted on 8.04.2007
Five popular software applications and five things to look for in them.

Without software, the Internet would be a tool reserved for data crunchers and programming geeks. The rise of software has brought the Web right to the fingertips of casual surfers and businesses alike. Advanced applications make communication, networking and collaboration possible on a level that was unthinkable 20 years ago — even 10 years ago.

New software is constantly developed, while old software becomes unusable. Caught in the middle is the website owner. It can be difficult to decide which software applications or hosted solutions are right for your business. Choose the right one and business is booming. Choose poorly and you lose time, money and possibly your livelihood.

Website Magazine is here to help. We examined five popular software solutions and five qualifying attributes of each to consider when making your selections. While impossible to cover every piece of software in each category, our evaluation is based on those solutions that are widely used or growing in use around the Web. Our guidelines for ratings are based on personal experience and trials, as well as feedback from other users.

Blogging has become an essential part of every Web enterprise. It’s the single most effective way to control the conversation about your business and keep your clients and prospects informed. The trick is finding a platform that works best for you, while differentiating yourself from the thousands of similar blogs in your industry.

A good place to get started if you’re unfamiliar or not completely sold on the idea of blogging is one of the free hosted solutions such as Google's, Microsoft’s Live Spaces and Yahoo’s 360. Or, even consider utilizing one of the offerings from social networking giants MySpace or Facebook, where you can easily build a profile page and start a blog at the same time. Otherwise, look into one of the more sophisticated solutions. While many of the most popular blogging platforms are free (open source) others are not, which for many will be a deciding factor.

Outside of cost, one of the first important deciding factors will be the system requirements. Making a selection based on the programming language the platform is built on, the operating system and the Web server can be crucial. If your enterprise program is in ASP and you’re familiar with the Microsoft server environment, deploying Wordpress (best suited for Apache servers) will present a host of integration issues and a sizable learning curve.

One of the problems with establishing a blog, whether customerfacing or personal is that they are magnets for spam — a very important security consideration. Fortunately, all of those reviewed below, with the exception of the Expression Engine, feature built-in Akismet (spam filtering) support or have a plugin available. If spam is a concern, other anti-spam features you should look for include word blacklisting, the ability to ban IP addresses and the availability of a “completely automated public turing test to tell computers and humans apart” (CAPTCHA).

Scalability of the platform will play a big role in your success. As your business grows, so will your blog. Will it be able to support new users? Do you want to enable public contributions, either with new posts or comments? Make sure your blogging platform is able to support new versions, security patches and updated features.

Ultimately, the reason to get into blogging is for the attention it can generate for your business. That means it needs to be SEOfriendly. For example, Wordpress enables customizable permalinks — meaning that your blog posts automatically contain original, descriptive keywords in their page names. Finally, look for blogs that support categories and archives. They both benefit long-term SEO.

Review more information about these blogging software platforms

CMS: Content Management Systems
In the early days of the Internet, website owners were required to manually code Web pages. While there were several tools and tricks to speed up deployment and ensure consistency of Web pages throughout a domain, this process was and still is cumbersome.

The advantage of using a content management system (CMS) is that workflow, the idea of moving from the initial creation of a document to its final approval, is greatly facilitated. Overall, supporting multiple users and assigning those users roles to help develop or manage content makes deployment faster and your business’ website more manageable. In short, CMS solutions are all about facilitating collaboration and making that content accessible publicly and privately.

Not everyone has the resources to develop a proprietary software system or the procedures necessary to manage content online. Fortunately there are hundreds, if not thousands of CMS solutions available to help website owners. Some are free (open-source) and some are commercial, typically available through a licensing system. All, however, have the potential to make your days as a Web worker more organized, efficient and successful.

CMS takes many forms but the most utilized (and thus most popular) have features that have become standards — for example, the ability to import documents, document change tracking and even messaging features. So what are some other features someone reviewing CMS solutions should identify as essential in their selection process?

Not everyone working on your website will be skilled in the fine art of Web design. CMS that offer a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) editor are crucial to a consistent user experience. In line with the document design are SEO-friendly considerations of the system and the individual pages. The ability to customize individual page names, content summaries and unique titles (meta data too) will provide many long term benefits — namely website traffic. Overall, the system’s ease of use will make or break your online enterprise.

Another key feature should be document management. The ability to track the process of content creation (creation, revision, publication, archival and removal) makes CMS a worthy investment as it will reduce the workload if multiple personnel are working on a document simultaneously. Advanced systems will even provide “workflow engines” to see who changed what document and when that change was made.

Scalability is also important. The Web is a dynamic environment and adaptability is inherent in good software. CMS solutions are often updated with added functionality (and even security patches) that you should be able to integrate quickly. From templates to plugins, the feature set of your CMS should be readily available for customization. If the CMS solution you choose does not come equipped with built-in applications such as guestbooks, link management, personalized pages or even forums, make sure that these functionalities are available through add-ons.

Review more information about these Content Management Systems (CMS)

E-commerce systems

While you may be blogging for exposure, selling makes money. It’s the foundation of the commercial Internet. And what supports it all for millions of website owners is e-commerce software.

Operating a successful online e-commerce presence is one of the most challenging aspects of running an Internet business. Simply put, ecommerce systems are business applications serving commercial transactions online. Of course, it’s more complex than that. Consider the transfer of electronic funds, supply-chain management, online marketing, transaction processing, inventory management and the exchange of data and you can see the need for a robust e-commerce solution.

Reliable e-commerce platforms make a big difference in the success of an online enterprise. As such, the back-end aspects of these various solutions should be a key part of your decision process. Reliability and security aren’t buzzwords, they are imperative. The Web host being utilized should support your e-commerce system with parallel servers, hardware redundancy, and fail-safe technologies that ensure availability and the highest performance at all times.

But beyond the technical aspects of e-commerce solutions, the next most important influencing factor should be the experience that will be provided to the end user — your client.

The leading e-commerce platforms share a common thread; they provide a stable, seamless, user-friendly purchasing experience. The design that is presented to users is, in many respects, as important as the products you provide.

The best solutions also offer support for business owners to sell their products. From coupons to special offers and discounts, the capacity to automate these tactics should be important part of your decision. When looking at the top e-commerce websites — take for example — what do they have in common? Personalization. You simply will not find a successful e-commerce website that does not provide personalized offers based on previous purchases.

Another key ingredient of successful e-commerce sites is the communities they foster. When users can discuss and even collaborate on products, they begin to develop an affinity for the online property hosting the community. Loyalty programs are also an easy way to develop a following and the solution you select should support them. Facilitating consumption is another important part of community — product information is vital.

The last, but arguably one of the most important aspect of the best e-commerce solutions is communication. Transparency and openness is not a dream, it’s an increasing necessity. Selecting a system that helps you send email notifications and manage clients’ individual needs is what will take your online enterprise from bust to boom.

Review more information about these Ecommerce software solutions

Email Marketing Software

Despite increasing customer distaste, ongoing legislative threats and technological innovations, marketing to an audience of targeted, opt-in subscribers via email still produces results.

The only evidence needed to support the ongoing use of email as an effective marketing tool is found on every email client — your junk folder. While many end up in this wasteland, effective email campaigns can produce big dividends. If it didn’t, your inbox would only receive the emails you wanted and you would never need a junk folder.

The entire email process should begin on your website the moment when a request for subscription is made. Software helps you manage this process, from the submission of a name and email address to the importing of that data into an application that organizes and executes the mailing. Very much in line with this “support from the beginning” approach is scalability. While some solutions cater exclusively to periodic, small- and medium-sized campaigns, others focus exclusively on large-scale and frequent promotions. Understanding the capabilities of your provider and defining your enterprise’s growth expectations will give you an idea on which vendor or solution will accompany your business into the future.

Successful email marketing also hinges on detailed reporting. Email service providers should offer detailed reports on open rates, click-thru rates, and most importantly the deliverability of individual email campaigns. Sending thousands of emails that all bounce back will raise red flags with Internet Service Providers (ISPs), waste promotional budgets and potentially aggravate future customers. Email marketing software providers who excel at reporting are those which have close relationships with the ISPs themselves and the technology available to help you manage campaign data.

Your primary concern should be the success of campaigns, but it’s easy to get sidetracked and focus on the aesthetics of individual email creatives. While important, it’s debatable whether it makes much of an impact. Some will argue that HTML newsletters work better, while others only send text emails. Having the option to send both types and support for both should be a deciding factor in your selection process. Some providers even provide WYSIWYG editors and template suggestions to facilitate “best practices” design for their clients.

Finally, email marketing software vendors should offer a high level of support – both technical and administrative. Email marketing on the whole is comparable in complexity to search engine optimization in that it requires expertise in several areas to be successful; coding and development, reporting and analytics, customer service and marketing. When one piece of the email puzzle fails, they all fail.

Like most things in business, you get what you pay for. So, if you are serious about the promotion of your online enterprise through email, focus on paid services, as the others come with a characteristic amateur look and feel.

Review more information about these Email Marketing software solutions


Forum Software

Since the beginning of the commercial Web, webmasters have been deploying forums to foster communities. When communities are healthy they have the tendency to thrive. When left unattended, they are fertile grounds for all sorts of wasteful marketing energy, not to mention spam.

Unfortunately, healthy forums have traditionally relied on countless hours of oversight from the forum leader or webmaster. This is precisely the reason that selecting the right software to power your forum is so important. Choosing wisely will lessen the need to rigorously oversee each and every happening at the forum, while ensuring that your forum is active and secure. When choosing what forum software to power your community, it is imperative to review server considerations, technical requirements, the depth of the feature set and how well it will grow with your online enterprise.

Forum software packages come in a variety of programming languages such as PHP, Perl, Java and ASP. Selecting software based on your experience with a programming language makes sense, as does the operating system, database type and Web server. Choose a solution outside of your area of expertise and be ready to climb the learning curve.

Several considerations must also be made for the technical features. Is your forum one part of a greater community? Is there a plan for integration of your forum with weblogs or a CMS? For example, Website Magazine utilizes Community Server from Telligent (communityserver. org), a commercial-grade CMS that features weblog functionality, a CMS and a forum. When a user signs into the system, they are automatically able to access the various portions of the site. The result is a more uniform Web experience, a goal set in the beginning of our decision- making process.

Most website owners wisely base their forum software decision on the feature set of the application. Each one offers different features – from the most basic, providing text-only postings, to more advanced packages offering multimedia support and formatting code (usually known as BBCode).If you have never implemented a forum before, choosing a no-frills version might seem appealing with the idea that consumer use and administration will be easy. Unfortunately, all forum software is not created equal — in the end, you’ll be more pleased if you select a solution that is expandable. Some important functionality to look for includes the presence and depth of plugins or add-ons (for example the ability to include a calendar or catalog) and theme support for design changes and alterations.

Also consider the ability to create polls, provide private messaging, user management restrictions (including group creation, forum restrictions, blacklisting and IP blocking) and, of increasing importance, syndication (RSS/Atom). A few other key considerations are security features such as CAPTCHA support, word filtering and the delivery style of posts; straight text, rich text or HTML.

Review more information on these forum software solutions

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