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Feature: Then, Now and Next

Posted on 11.01.2007
Learning from our past and looking to the future

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The Web is constantly evolving. And, what separates the Web from other forms of progress is the blinding speed with which change occurs. What is useful today can become a mere relic just months, even weeks from now. But, as with anything else it is important to understand where we have been in order to know where we are going.

This month Website Magazine celebrates our two-year anniversary. Since our inception, we have covered everything from search to social media, and design to e-commerce. And while two years may not seem very long, plenty has changed in our industry since November of 2005.

We have witnessed Google’s rise to dominance and the explosion of user-generated content. The Web has become a platform developed and shaped by users and has come to foster communities all over the world. The maturation of the Web has made us more productive and brought us closer together. As businesses, it’s vital to understand all aspects of the new Web and take advantage of every opportunity that has been created by our peers. Only when we understand our past, embrace the present and innovate for the future will we truly achieve Web success.

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“The past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is or has been is but the twilight of the dawn.”
— H.G. WELLS, The Discovery of the Future

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THEN: Yahoo and Google dominate the search market. Yahoo’s approach is to deliver search results based largely on their “officious hierarchy” — results deemed relevant by Yahoo itself, and many coming from their Directory Submit program. Meanwhile, Google places great importance on equations to determine relevance.

A search test for a popular term at the time saw Google return 6.2 million results in .17 seconds, while Yahoo returned 35 million results in .02 seconds. About half of Yahoo’s non-sponsored results were Yahoo services or directory categories.

“While history is not a concrete indicator of the Internet future … chances are slim neither Yahoo nor Google will stray too far from how they got their start.” Website Magazine, November 2005.

“Google at this point is the clear leader among the two if not the leading provider (at least in pure numbers) of affiliate solutions. The online world is anxiously awaiting Yahoo’s full-force entrance into the affiliate industry with a contextual market program, as at this point its failure to attract this valuable community may have set it back a few paces. For Yahoo, catching Google will be an exceedingly difficult task.” Website Magazine, November 2005.

NOW: Google made its mark in the industry with search but is securing its future spot in business history by slapping advertising on every technology that rears its head. Yahoo, once the reigning king of new media has slipped, and is now in a desperate fight to just stay in second place. Microsoft has officially set its sights on search and is employing its expertise in technology to compete not just with Yahoo but Google itself in a variety of capacities, including online software. But Microsoft is not alone in the race to be first in search. Nimble, savvy companies like Ask are innovating at breakneck speed and have impressive products that end-users are watching.

In its first study on worldwide search activity, Comscore noted that more than 750 million people age 15 or older — or 95 percent of the worldwide audience — conducted 61 billion searches worldwide in August 2007, an average of more than 80 searches per user. It is an understatement to say that the Web is now global. Within those top search properties from Comscore were two Asian sites (Baidu.com and NHN Corp.’s Naver.com) signifying a truly global search environment.

While these search engines drive the majority of search traffic, what’s happening now is an influx of more focused providers entering the market. Social shopping engines and vertical search providers have their sights set on consumers seeking more refined information than is available in all the worlds’ information.

NEXT: So what’s next for search engines and the technology of search in general? It’s a serious question that requires a serious answer. The future may not be in the big search engines and their traditional methods at all. With the rise of alternative and vertical search engines and focused social networks, pure algorithmic search may have the longevity of a passing thought.

The reason may surprise you. As computing and computers become more powerful, the concept of trust becomes increasingly revealed. Search engines have one fatal flaw and it’s a crisis of legitimacy — they are hotbeds of irrelevant, often manipulated content, which has earned its status at times by manipulating the trust (links) of others. In addition, many users are finding that their own social networks are better places to find relevant information to satisfy their search queries. Throughout the course of humanity, we have relied on our social sphere for trusted information when it matters most and that will never change. And why do you need 100 million results for a local search, anyway?

Another big push in search has been the adoption of a more universal approach to indexing and providing multiple types of content to end users. All four major search engines provide some model (whether directly integrated or not) of video, weblog and image search and it plays an important role now as it will in the future.

Of course, there will be new forms and styles of content available in the future and you can bet that the search engines will find ways to include them as well.

While there will undoubtedly be advancements in search technology with improvements in the fields of query intent, semantic indexing and personalized search, many are wondering if more customized search verticals will unseat popular search engines when it comes to user preference.

THEN: Successful e-commerce means breaking down barriers for yourself and the consumer. Integration of shopping carts, payment processing, fraud solutions and site design are imperative to a positive user experience and consumer confidence or trustworthiness. But many merchants are simply overwhelmed with aligning shopping carts with payment gateways and corresponding merchant accounts.

A report from Web Surveyor Corp. reveals that 70 percent of respondents abandon shopping carts prior to completing the purchase. The top three causes are comparison shopping, high shipping costs and not enough time to complete the process — or a cumbersome checkout experience.

Customer support, in the form of informational pages, FAQs, live support, readily available contact information and symbols of trustworthiness make a big impact on the success or failure of an e-commerce business. A May, 2005 Forrester Research study shows that when customers interact with live customer service, website abandonment decreased by 50 percent while closure rates exceeded
90 percent.

It is becoming increasingly important to take advantage of multiple e-commerce portals rather than just your own site. Spreading your product to different sites or employing affiliates is a must.

“According to comScore figures, online retail spending totaled $81.6 billion for all of 2005, up 24 percent from $65.8 billion in 2004.” Website Magazine, May 2006.

“Most successful online stores are utilizing data feeds to inject their product listings directly into Internet shopping portals such as Google’s Froogle or Become.com.” Website Magazine, May 2006.



NOW: E-commerce still garners a lot of attention on the Web and for good reason — it’s driving a significant amount of revenue for companies. Total e-commerce spending is expected to exceed $100 billion in 2007, just as it did in 2006. While there are industry rumblings that the rate of growth is beginning to plateau, it has not seemingly deterred many merchants from shifting their budgets online.

With more and more vendors coming online and crowding the market, getting noticed has become increasingly complex. Online merchants are starting to look at non-traditional methods to promote their goods. Social and comparison shopping engines, however never took off in the big way they were expected to as standalone resources. But recent Microsoft acquisitions such as JellyFish.com are making believers that the technology behind such services is real and can really benefit those with e-commerce aspirations.

Within such a complex and crowded environment, online merchants are looking beyond simply acquisition as a means to generate revenue and are investing in opportunities and solutions that optimize the performance of their sites and offers presented. Conversion optimization is one of the final frontiers of e-commerce that is finally receiving the recognition it deserves.

Another fascinating aspect of today’s e-commerce environment is the increasing popularity of widgets, enabling merchants to broaden their reach by deploying interactive features on the websites of others, including affiliates. E-commerce widgets, and social shopping have been one catalyst for the continued growth of online retail.


NEXT: The future of e-commerce may lie in a more personal shopping environment. Technology has given online merchants an exceptional opportunity to create customized experiences and environments for their users. Those savvy enough to recognize the importance of these unique offerings are rushing to accommodate user preferences. Concepts such as the sharing of products and even virtual dressing rooms are making Web shopping a truly interactive environment and will continue to do so in the future.

It’s not just the technology that is helping e-commerce secure a successful future. Those merchants who have separated themselves from the pack have also focused on more rudimentary elements of their platforms like customer service (live online chat) and ease of use (improved checkout processes) to achieve a seamless experience for users and a profitable opportunity on every visit.

Finally, e-commerce stands to get a huge boost as more users are able to set up an online presence with greater ease. Social networking profiles and simple, template-based Web pages offer a serious opportunity for mass profit. As it gets easier for everyone on the Web to have a true online presence, mass distribution channels will allow e-commerce functionality to anyone with a profile on any number of the social networks or a personal website.

 

 

THEN: Affiliate strategies often reflect time-tested strategies of the door-to-door salesperson. A good product, solving a problem, charisma (site design and usability) and networking are just as important today as they were in the past.

However, affiliate marketing differs from traditional sales by way of innovation. As an affiliate, if you don’t innovate you get left behind. Affiliate guru Wayne Porter said, “Disruptive technology can be risky to deploy, but it is where you reap the larger rewards.” Porter believes savvy marketers are the ones using AJAX and Web services that provide new levels of interaction, like Digg. The latest technologies like blending blogging with data feeds and supplying comparison shopping capabilities are important strategies for cutting-edge affiliates.

Metrics are a must for a successful affiliate, including average time on the site, bounce rates and even click paths. “The best marketers test, measure and adapt and they understand the numbers game,” said Porter.

“Affiliate marketing is, by nature a model of networking. And these days, technology makes it easier than ever.” Website Magazine, August 2006.

“Other affiliates, forums, trade shows, business blogs, newsletters … there are countless ways to network and the most successful affiliates make it a priority.” Website Magazine, August 2006.


NOW: Not much has changed in the affiliate landscape since our issue on the topic. Those principles separating super affiliates from the rest are still those that matter most and likely will not change in the foreseeable future.

What is changing, however, are the technologies that affiliates use to capitalize on the opportunity of reselling products and services on behalf of others. Case in point: much like e-commerce, widgets have had a profound effect on how many affiliates earn or, more appropriately, attempt to generate revenue from their sites. The downside is seemingly a market saturated with web-based gizmos and gadgets providing users an infinite opportunity to be distracted from the task at hand — being referred.

Another exceptional opportunity has been the opening of merchant systems through APIs. Not a fad in any sense, APIs help developers take previously siloed information and mashup the available data into an entirely new application that is unique for end-users and, in a perfect scenario, capable of making money for the affiliate. This would be cost prohibitive using traditional integration methods like data feeds.

Fortunately, many savvy affiliates recognize that success as a mere affiliate is never the best option; rather becoming an advocate is the only true way to achieve Web success. If affiliate marketers take steps towards developing applications on their own to support the vendor they are affiliated with and are actively promoting, not just recognition but revenue for the product sold will be accessible.

NEXT: As long as there have been businesses, there have been affiliates — that will never change. What will impact the business of affiliate marketing are the same things impacting the Web in general right now.

Improvements in search, both ever changing search algorithms and the increasing presence of specialized, local and vertical search engines will have a major impact on affiliates. Already, universal search is taking hold and it will continue to progress. Optimizing sites within and for this new environment is now essential for high rankings and long-term, consistent traffic. The end result is a larger, more dedicated audience and exceptional (high-revenue) affiliate experiences.

Enhancements to the e-commerce environment and better design will also play a critical role. As the marketplace gets more crowded, setting your site apart from the rest becomes a do-or-die proposition — savvy users expect something more than just seamless design and functionality, they expect to be presented with content in new and compelling ways. Today, as it will in the future, successful affiliates are turning traditional affiliate marketing on its head and mashing up content in ways that not just excite users but motivate them to take an action.

And, of course, who would argue against the influence of social media on every aspect of our online existence? Web businesses must engage in the community but also understand the challenges of competing with millions of new e-commerce enabled social participants. The traditional marketing landscape is changing — not only in size, but in scope. An affiliate’s network doesn’t only support them, but defines the level of their success.

The future of affiliates in all ways is bright and limited only by the creativity of the marketing mind.

 

THEN: Website Magazine presented a roundtable discussion about Web design with four top designers and experts in the industry. There were a few key takeaways that not only professional designers would appreciate but also those testing the waters.

It’s been said before and it will be said again, content is king. The lesson may be to aim for seamless design, not a design that overshadows the information being shared. “If the design rules the content, then you have simply lost the entire point of the website. People are looking for better ways to deliver content.” Cameron Friedlander, Designkitchen.

One of the inherent challenges of website design is that it is part art and part science. Finding the balance between the two is complex but few stay around to explore a poorly designed website. “There is no excuse for a website not to be visually pleasing, interactively engaging, optimally performing and 100 percent usable.” Andrew Sirotnik, Fluid, Inc.

Many designers find that they become overwhelmed at the myriad of tools and resources available to them. Consider it part of the job, as Joe Crump explained, “Keeping aware of technological changes is critical. But it’s equally important to maintain perspective and not become confused or overly influenced by changes that are simply hype or fads.” Joe Crump, Avenue A / Razorfish.

Many things have not changed — you still can’t index Flash, at least not very well. While many are still developing ways to give search engines the ability to index Flash, we have seemingly made no notable progress and simply have been forced to create duplicate content to get website copy read by search engine spiders.

“The challenge as I see it will be similar to what we have now — where most people are browsing on non-standardscompliant browsers and we have to design standards-based websites that work on those browsers as well as IE 7 and Firefox.” Jennifer Kyrnin, About.com.

NOW: The challenges that faced designers in the Website Magazine roundtable discussion still influence how the design community develops user interfaces and the elements that websites are built from.

Kyrnin was right in more than a few ways. While there were rumblings of how big mobile was going to be, new browsers have changed the way designers work. And the introduction of the iPhone and its Safari browsers are continuing push many designers to the edge.

While the proverbial envelope is continually pushed to its virtual limits, the best design (that which compels users to take action but does not compete with content) may have yet to be seen. Design is fluid in the sense that small changes often yield the biggest improvements. This fluidity yields advancements that can positively impact the bottom line of any Web enterprise.

The increasing simplicity of design formats makes easy work of deploying an attractive website. Cascading style sheets (CSS) are currently making short work of what used to be a tedious process in design. The trend towards open-source design, while making purists cringe at its mere thought, has also turned many mediocre Web presences into modern representations of a Web design standard.

NEXT: As technology becomes more available to a broader swath of aspiring Web professionals, design will become an even more integral part of the user experience.

From content management systems to virtually any e-commerce software, customized themes rather than standalone carts with custom designed pages will be the norm. A proficiency in a multitude of software languages and even specific applications will be important if not outright mandatory.

Web design is in a transitional period. Designers are working toward better utilizing content management on different systems. More designs are incorporating illustrations and working towards more fluid presentations and getting away from boxy-looking standardized Web pages.

One aspect that will not change in the future is the desire for usability within Web pages. And, as Flash looks like a mainstay, sooner than later designers and developers will need to find a way to integrate flash without disturbing a site's usability or ability to be indexed.

Website Magazine’s very own art director, Jesse Erbach is anxiously awaiting the release of CSS3. “It will make everything more unified. We’ll get to do a lot more things that are cross-browser friendly.”

Finally, mobile design will be a consistent theme moving forward. “Mobile will continue to be important,” says Erbach. “With the development of the iPhone and similar devices yet to be seen, people are now doing full Web surfing on their handheld devices.”

 



THEN: Social media sites burst onto the scene and became an official phenomenon when Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion. There is little doubt that social media sites can help websites gain exposure — from social bookmarking king Digg to indexed MySpace profile pages, the social scene looks like a must for any serious Web enterprise. But it is a relatively new medium and some caution should be exercised.

Advertisers are leery of losing control of their ad placement, causing many to take a wait-and-see approach. Many of the social sites contain profiles and content that advertisers deem inappropriate and do not want to be associated with. There are also major concerns over security. Many social profiles are easily hacked, a situation where a brand can be hijacked and their good name dragged through the mud. Even bookmarking pioneer Digg is experiencing some blowback, as users game the system by turning it from a news sharing and voting site to an underhanded traffic generator. Digg instituted a round of bans in December 2006 to unscrupulous users.

What's more, most advertisers feel that the social networking scene is largely occupied by teenagers and not serious prospects. But some figures dispute that notion. An October, 2006 comScore analysis shows that half of MySpace users are 35 or older. Only 30 percent were shown to be under 25 years old.

“Everyone is still waiting to see how Google will capitalize on its investment, while many are debating the exact value of social media for advertisers, business owners and website owners.” Webiste Magazine, February 2007.

“With millions of users and billions of monthly page views it [MySpace] is clearly the leader in social networking.” Website Magazine, February 2007.


NOW: So what could possibly have changed from just nine months ago? For starters, MySpace has lost its grip as the king of all social media. While still the leader in terms of numbers, MySpace is experiencing a disturbing loss of members while Facebook is rapidly gaining ground. In part due to Facebook’s opening of their system to developers and in part because MySpace became static — although they followed Facebook’s lead and recently opened up their site as well. Facebook has become the popular kid on the block, with sites like LinkedIn and Ryze edging their way into the business social networking arena.

Advertisers also jumping on board to the tune of an estimated ad spend of $900 million in 2007, according to a recent eMarketer analysis. And Google is indeed getting a return on their YouTube investment. They have entered several syndication deals with major media networks and recently released advertising on YouTube videos — both on the site and available on embedded media players for anyone’s website.

Social networking is here to stay and promises to be a highly valuable part of every online enterprise. It has become important for businesses to make some sort of presence within these networks, while closely monitoring the activity on these sites. The very essence of social media is viral — brands need to pay close attention to the conversations on these sites. While the possibilities for positive attention can be numerous, so can the dangers of losing control of your brand in the eyes of social networkers. The key is to be active in these networks and treat it as a true social circle. Constantly selling yourself without providing real value to your contacts and the networks in general can be disastrous.


NEXT: Social networking will continue to grow at a rapid rate. Venture capital funding is flowing freely to every new network that pops up and advertisers are readily shifting their budgets to include social media. An eMarketer analysis projects social media ad spending to top $2.1 billion in 2010.

On the horizon is the advancement of so-called micro networks. These more specialized social sites are attempting to build communities which are dedicated to niche environments, in the hopes of providing true business networking. But as more of these sites arrive there is a real concern of the idea of social networking fatigue. More networks bring the need for more profiles — more login IDs, passwords, marketing resources and more time needed to keep up with all of the separate sites. What will become crucial to the health of social networking is bringing all of these micro networks into a larger network of their own and providing users with an easy way to handle all of their profiles at once. Finally, mobile social networking is starting to gain some attention.

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