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Evolutionary Phases of a Web Site

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Your company may not survive without a Web strategy, and that Web strategy has to be more than simply putting your marketing brochures on the Internet. This article overviews six phases of Internet development—from a simple Web presence to full business integration, collaboration, and innovation.

Currently, the Web accommodates over 90 million visitors and billions of dollars in financial transactions—with expected growth by a factor of 10 over the next couple of years. Now that electronic commerce has really come of age, how does your Web site compare to others in your industry? When surfing the Web, you can find a wide variety of sites in various evolutionary phases—starting with mere Web presence to fully integrated e- business systems with push technology. From either an Information Technology (IT) or a marketing perspective, one can follow an evolutionary path to bring a Web site to the leading edge, both technologically and functionally. Are you fully exploiting this medium either presently or in your plans for the coming year?

Let’s take a look at the requirements that typical in-house users for your Web site (the marketing department, for example) might request as they move to a sophisticated stage of Web-site maturity. Then, I’ll outline the technological steps that must be taken to address these needs.

Keep in mind that some companies may cover the first few phases of the logical progression of Web site functionality and technical depth in the initial delivery of their Web sites. Other organizations may have functionality covered in Phase 5 but not in Phase 4. It is important to identify the business objectives of your Web site when making your plans. This will assist you in determining what functional areas are critical for meeting those objectives.

Phase 1: Web Presence

In the first phase of marketing on the Web, basic company and product information, along with graphics, may be displayed in brochure style. This presentation is essentially just a new forum for your print media. Links to pages (or sections of pages) and

animated graphics could enhance the experience beyond the printed page, but that would be the extent of it. This type of site would address the need for a Web presence. From an IT perspective, this format can be delivered either through a third party—like an Internet Service Provider (ISP)—or via an in-house system.

Delivering your site via a third party should always be considered a temporary measure. This method of delivery may be necessary if you have to get the site live quickly and do not have the technical infrastructure in place or, possibly, if you do not envision ever moving to a future e-business site with full systems integration. For the simple, static site described in this phase, it is not essential that you host your own site; however, you will probably have to address this issue eventually.

Ideally, you will be able to invest the time and money into hosting your own site in the first phase so that your organization will be in a better position to progress into later stages. If you are going to host your own site, I recommend that you do this on an AS/400, particularly if your core business systems are AS/400 based. Regardless of the platform, your IT department will have some work to do. The following five steps outline some of the initial effort involved in setting up your site on an AS/400:

1. Select Web-serving software for your AS/400 and configure (I/NET’s Commerce Server/400 or IBM’s ICSS are your primary options. See “AS/400 Web Servers” elsewhere in this issue).

2. Make a decision on hardware (for instance, whether you are going to use an existing AS/400 or purchase a smaller one to be used exclusively as your Internet server) and set up.

3. Address network issues—for example, run TCP/IP, set up the firewall and proxy server, get certificates if Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is required, etc.

4. Connect your Internet server to the Internet via an ISP and register your domain
5. Develop the initial HTML pages and graphics and store them on your AS/400 in Integrated File System (AS400/IFS) directories.

Phase 2: Dress It Up

Once you have established and set up your site, you can start enhancing it to take advantage of browser and PC technologies. For example, you could incorporate animated graphics or multimedia objects. And Java applets can be used to produce special effects or functionality on the client, browser PC.

At this point, you may want to add simple fill-in forms with the MailTo HTML tag so that the information typed in by a user can be emailed back to you. This would usually involve rekeying the emailed information into a server-side business system, like Customer Service or Order Entry. In later phases, I will revisit this temporary solution.

Simple ad banners could be set up with links to other Web sites. You could start setting up partnerships with complementary sites so that a visitor could easily jump from one site to another.

At this stage, you are working primarily with HTML and client-side objects that can be downloaded and run on the client browser. You will notice that I have not addressed any programming on the server side or actual integration with server-side applications and databases. From an IT perspective, the enhancements outlined in this phase do not require a great deal more expertise, hardware, or software tools to produce than in the first phase. In many cases, Phases 1 and 2 will be tackled simultaneously.

As you start adding more content, you may want to set up a search on your site for visitors to more easily find what they are looking for. And you should set up meta tags so that outside search engines can find your site on the Internet.

Phase 3: Add Some Intelligence

Once you reach Phase 3, the real excitement begins, and the functionality of your site can explode. If you are ready to implement server-side programs to address real business needs, the role of IT—particularly the development team—becomes critical.

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Simple fill-in forms, which would store the user’s input in database files on the AS/400, are an example of required functionality in this phase. Additionally, there may be some basic validation rules that the user must follow. Consider a form on which a name and phone number is required, the postal code must be in a valid format, and the user must answer certain questions. You may not want the submission of the form to be complete unless the visitor fills in a minimum amount of information correctly.

To deliver this type of functionality, developers will typically create programs, files, and tables on the server (AS/400) that will be initiated via either Common Gateway Interface (CGI) or Java servlets. (For more on servlets, see “Servlets: What’s Old Is New” elsewhere in this issue). On the AS/400, a variety of tools and programming techniques can be used to deliver a Phase 3-style site, including Net.Data, LANSA for the Web, Domino, Java, and RPG/CGI.

Anyone new to Web systems development will have to get used to a unique characteristic of this type of system—statelessness. A typical application on the AS/400 runs within a job, which facilitates keeping track of open files, data values for fields and records, actions taken, etc., regardless of how many screens have been presented. With a typical Web system, each delivery of a page is an independent occurrence without any memory of the user’s previous actions or requests. Given the nature of navigation on the Web, it would not be practical to keep clients and servers in sync within the HTTP protocol. Some special techniques can be employed to overcome this; however, such synchronicity is more characteristic of a Phase 4 site.

Phase 4: Full Business Integration

Providing support for key business processes on the Web to partners, field staff, and customers is now a real possibility. Well-designed Web systems can enhance these business processes and make a significant contribution to your operational efficiencies and your incoming revenue. Many of these benefits are recognized by firms that have evolved their Web site into the fourth phase— full business integration.

Order entry via the Web, for either partners or customers, is one of the most common e-business applications under investigation these days. And it’s a great illustration of full business integration. Typically, users will have to identify themselves to the site. In some cases, information about the user will be used to drive the order entry process. For example, bill-to and ship-to data will come from the users’ profiles. Payment terms and methods, as well as discounts and credit limits, may be defaulted from their customer master information. Order history may be used to lead customers through the selection process. Searching against a product database and bringing back price and availability will be necessary. Another common feature is the ability for customers to check their orders and account status.

When order-entry capabilities are made available to the general public, credit card processing is usually required. Products such as Merchant/400 from I/NET can assist with online approvals and processing of credit card transactions. If credit card numbers, or other confidential information, are transferred over the Internet, many organizations will set up SSL encryption to protect this data from “sniffers.”

Visitor tracking and statistical reporting of visitor activity on your Web site are other common requirements by the time that this phase is reached. These capabilities can assist an organization in making decisions about Web content and functionality. Using the log files of your Web server and a variety of graphing and reporting tools (such as WebTrends), the number of hits and visitors, as well as statistics on specific static page hits, can be tracked. However, if you have a sophisticated site with many dynamic pages, you will need to build some of this tracking into your application. Reports can always be produced once the data collection is properly set up.

Given the nature of a true e-business system, clearly, the application will need to keep track of users’ requests and information over a series of pages—not just one page at a time. More advanced Web-programming techniques, such as user authentication, cookies,

and transaction servers will need to be employed. In addition, the programming environment used in the back-end should be much more sophisticated to perform transactions over the core business systems in an organization. This level of e-business is where tools such as Domino and Net.Data are usually insufficient to meet the needs of an e- business application.

Phase 5: Collaboration

This phase of Web functionality extends beyond typical business requirements and into new ways of communicating electronically. This may or may not be an area that you will need to address in your site plans.

Lotus Domino has been a common tool used to address collaboration strategies within organizations—both via Lotus Notes clients and via Web-deployed Notes applications. Domino applications are a good vehicle to use for discussion forums and the sharing of textual information. Chat rooms are a more specialized type of collaboration offering that require special software.

Phase 6: Innovation

As your site matures in content and functionality, you will be poised to take advantage of new ideas and innovations that are appearing on the Web every day. Let’s take a look at some examples of this.

Once you can identify users and track their movements, you could develop a site that customizes itself based on user interests. An AS/400 site has this ability, which offers great marketing potential. If you know users’ interests, you can target the messages and content that is delivered as users navigate through your site so that they see information that will lead them to a buying decision.

Marketing on the Internet is a good area to zero in on if we are to discuss innovative new ideas with this remarkable medium. Think about ad banners that can be displayed on pages and which can lead to selling ad space to partners or clients, possibly resulting in new, incremental revenue. Now, how much would you charge? The standard these days is to charge by the impression (how many times the banner gets displayed) and sometimes, by clickthroughs (how many times someone actually jumps to your site from the banner). So, some special programming would be required to support this “counting” and then have it feed into your billing system.

Other innovative techniques in Internet marketing include targeted email ad campaigns and electronic trade shows. Just think, we may be able to attend COMMON in the year 2001 by sitting at our PCs for a couple of days.

Get Going

When you’re reevaluating the depth of your Web site’s functionality, the following are some of the criteria you may want to consider:

• Client-side bells and whistles—Is your site sexy? Appealing? Exciting?
• Degree of interactivity and customization with the visitor
• Power of information exchange
• Full business integration—Is your site interacting directly with your core systems?
• Revenue potential—Have you explored new and innovative ways to earn revenue, save money, or market directly to your customers via your Web site?

• Site traffic—Are you getting a lot of return visitors? Are visitor paths through your site hitting the areas that you want hit?

If your Web site is meeting any of the above criteria, then you’re on the right track. But don’t let up! If your site is barely at the Web presence phase (or nonexistent), then you’re probably getting dangerously behind your competition. Traffic on the Web is increasing exponentially. Don’t miss out on this incredible medium that can propel your organization forward in marketing, sales, and operational efficiencies.

Eden Watt

Eden Watt, PMP, is a project director and consultant with over two decades of experience in Information Technology projects, overseeing application modernization and innovative solution delivery for clients. With her strategic partnerships, Eden can offer both consulting services and innovative software solutions to answer many of today's challenging needs, particularly in the area of evolving traditional applications to take advantage of advanced technology. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or www.linkedin.com/in/edenwatt.

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