While there are no "secrets" to owning or operating a successful website, there is one incredibly important step that should be taken to ensure that you have the best possible chance at fame and fortune. An easy start to website success is beginning with research and benchmarking.
As you might imagine - most Web professionals begin their journey towards Web success hastily, moved more by the potential than the details encountered throughout the journey. I believe so strongly in the importance of preparation and research that I dedicated an entire chapter section to it in my recently released book Web 360: The Fundamentals of Web Success.
In that chapter I discuss the importance of research and benchmarking in the context of the "big idea" and the steps you can take to ensure that the information you acquire about the industry in which you will be participating and those you will be competing against provides real, measurable value over both the short and long term.
Research is often met with skepticism and sighs, however. What can you really get out of it? How long is it going to take? These are good questions, but consider this: Would you go for a job interview without knowing something about the company? Would you buy shares (invest) in a public company without knowing something about it? Probably not. Research is fundamental to success on the Web.
So let's get started!
Below you'll find an excerpt from Web 360 - consider it an introduction to competitive research on the Web.
From Web 360: The Fundamentals of Web Success
Chapter 1, Section 2 Excerpt
You came up with a great idea. Congratulations. Now the fun begins. Benchmarking is one of those terms that, if you didn't know any better, would require several hours of scratching your head while you had it explained to you.
In its simplest explanation, benchmarking is the process of finding out who the competition is, the quantity and quality of their presence, the positive and negative feedback associated with those you are researching, and, most importantly, learning what it takes to meet or exceed the value in and success achieved by the competing enterprises you identified in this process.
If the term benchmarking confuses, frustrates or bores you, consider it the equivalent of building out a dossier of your enemies. Once you know who your enemies are and what their strongest and weakest attributes are, you are able to improve yourself (and your big idea) so that you can compete against (and defeat) them in the future.
Even without a vast market-research budget, each and every enterprise can start the benchmarking process by identifying the problem areas of its competitors and what makes certain solutions (or websites) better or worse than the others in its niche. Since benchmarking is often applied to many varying business processes and functions, a range of research techniques are often implemented. Many successful enterprises engage in benchmarking because of the advantages the process can provide.
Benchmarking for the Rest of Us
There are as many different approaches to benchmarking and competitive research as there are definitions, so know that yours would not be the first website to launch without a thorough formal analysis of this nature. In the end, you can certainly develop and promote a website without having any information at all about your competitors, but when competitive benchmarking is done effectively, your site will ultimately be better positioned for success.
Properly executed benchmarking will reveal new marketing methodologies, business techniques, design ideas and development tools to improve the effectiveness of your own Web presence. The practice also illustrates the best methods for solving issues you are experiencing other than the ones you are currently utilizing. Demonstrating to your team and yourself that these alternate solutions work, because they are being used by others, will relieve many site-related headaches in the future when you consider improving your website and the big idea that it represents.
Benchmarking is not just a process, but should also be considered a formal business policy and an ongoing commitment to staying informed of the issues that impact the sustainability of your online endeavor. Thinking of it in the following manner may clear up the confusing nature of benchmarking.
Web Tip: Know More Than the Competition - Knowing more than the competition will serve you well as you create a strategy, create a website and create your own business destiny. There is no replacement for knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the companies and websites you are competing against, and understanding the needs of people and the industry itself. Knowing more than the competition will give you a leg up, and failing to know more will result in missed opportunities-something you can't afford to risk.
In every conversation, informal or formal (with customers, employees, suppliers or partners), your business should seek every opportunity to gain important information about others. Make an effort every day to find out everything you can about what it will take to be the premier vendor of whatever it is that you are selling, offering or providing. Exploratory research techniques like focus groups, surveys and questionnaires are a great start, and there are plenty of resources to help facilitate this research.
What should you be benchmarking? Your first step might be to identify enterprises that are leaders in the niche or industry that you are getting involved with-often called competitive benchmarking. It is usually pretty easy to find out which companies are worthy of your research attention; just query your preferred search engine with the words and phrases with which you hope your customers will ideally find you. Another option is to use services such as Compete.com, Quantcast.com, Alexa.com and Ranking.com, as these outlets offer valuable data on websites in specific categories.
Once you know the "who", then you can start a process of discovery: What makes this site or its product unique? What do its clients think of the offering? How does (or will) my solution or service differ? Should I modify my pricing to be more in line with the competition, or am I confident enough that my site, service or solution can stand on its own? Your responses to these questions might be subjective and biased, but the information you gather is valuable and will help you identify opportunities for your big idea to flourish.
Web Tip: Benchmarking for Everyone - Benchmarking is not a practice for your enjoyment, but rather your benefit. Perhaps the easiest way to get the process started is to begin with your preferred spreadsheet software, e.g. Excel. You will find that documenting your research is far better than trying to recall everything at once. You can put a Web 2.0 twist on your benchmarking and use a bookmarking service and tag the content you include to build a repository of information important to you and your big idea. Scuttle and phpBookmark are two good options to consider, as are PressMark and Akarru.
You may hear a lot of "do this" and "do that" when it comes to benchmarking, but most of the information does not provide any specific guidance to those developing a Web presence, largely because there are so many ways to look at a product or company, and even more ways to identify and analyze the data that you collect.
Here's what you need to know about benchmarking: find out who the competition is and learn how they market and present their products online, making sure to develop criteria that is important to the short and long term sustainability of your Internet endeavor. Does the site advertise online? If so, where? In what format are your competitors' pages designed? What are the pricing levels of the product or service? Developing a spreadsheet about these various points of interest has helped many Internet experts keep track of all the information they discover through the research process, and it will help you, too. Once you start researching and keeping good notes, the answers and solutions will reveal themselves clearly-very clearly.
In Focus: Ranking.com - When engaging in competitive benchmarking, you will quickly discover that opinions abound. One provider will provide one view or angle on a website and another will see something completely different. For this reason it is important to supplement whichever service you use with data from other data services as it helps develop a fuller picture of the competitive landscape. Consider using Ranking.com's advanced search feature for example, which tracks of sites' online popularity over time.