In 1996, Mark Zisek and Roger Kung came up with a great idea for a new company. The partners, both age 35, founded Yardley, Pennsylvania-based Home-to-Home to sell a system that allows frequent movers to quickly and easily alert organizations of their new addresses. The system lets a person fill out a single change-of-address form indicating which organizations should be notified about an address change, including magazines, catalogs, alumni associations, frequent-flier programs, and book and record clubs. At the outset, Home-to-Home focused on the Philadelphia area and a few other test markets, but launched its nationwide expansion in early 1997.
Problem was, the Web site they created to sell and promote Home-to-Home's services was all wrong.
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Poor Design
A Web site seemed a natural for Home-to-Home's national expansion: The company could promote its services, collect order forms and allow customers to buy services online. But Zisek found it difficult to nab a good Web designer who would devote a lot of time to the project. He finally found a big-name Web designer with a good reputation through a contact, but because Home-to-Home was a small client, it still didn't get the attention it needed. "We always ended up second or third on their list," recalls Zisek.
As a result, Home-to-Home's very first Web site was less than stellar. It took six months to put up, cost about $1,000 and was, according to Zisek, "overly verbose, unorganized and without much content. In addition, some of the pages were slow and clunky."
In mid-1999, Zisek tried again. This time, he found a Del Mar, California-based company called TheNETrep (http://www.thenetrep.com), which specializes in upgrading Web sites. Among other services, TheNETrep critiques sites for $100 using 12 criteria, including overall look, message, speed, text readability and mistakes.
Zisek commissioned a critique under advice from his company's chief technical officer, Dave Horoschak, and, at first, tried to redo his site internally. However, last August, Zisek signed up TheNETrep to do more work and "generally give us a more professional look," he says.
Now the site has cleaner graphics, more content, a quicker load time and a better all-around image, which, Zisek says, will boost investors' confidence in the company. In addition, he says the upgrade has contributed to Home-to-Home's increased online sales recently, which hit nearly $2 million last year.
TheNETrep has also put together an affiliate program for the company, where other businesses place banners on their Web sites to refer their own customers to Home-to-Home. The whole enhancement process took less than five months to complete and cost Home-to-Home about $4,000.
TheNETrep president Bruce Lawrence sees many poorly designed Web sites that could profit from a little simplification. "The words on the site have to be clear and simple, graphics have to do no more than elaborate on the words, and the site has to be quick," Lawrence says.
According to Lawrence, a complete Web overhaul typically costs between $2,500 and $5,000, and can include basic Web enhancements such as a reworking of words and graphics. It may also include add-ons, such as affiliate programs and weekly newsletters.
After making cosmetic changes, improving the download speed and adding content areas, it's important to consider the next phase of Web-site enhancements--upgrading back-end operations. This process is much more expensive because it often means integrating a Web site with a database and accounting system or creating an intranet for suppliers. The cost for these improvements can top $50,000.
Do You Need To Upgrade?
Before you revamp your Web site, hire a third-party consultant to evaluate the site and help determine the need for a complete overhaul. That's exactly what Home-to-Home did before committing to an upgrade.
"You should upgrade only when there will be a measured benefit to doing so," says Gary Valle, president of Valley Programming Service Inc., a Web consulting company based in Canoga Park, California.
If you don't want to use a third-party agency, however, you can try a service that offers instant performance appraisal. Keynote Systems (http://www.keynote.com), based in San Mateo, California, offers a service called Lifeline, which measures the length of time it takes to download Web pages and compares that time with an index of download times from 40 well-known Web sites. The results of these comparisons are sent as graphics and tables in real time through the Internet.
Keynote's Lifeline also includes automatic alerts by e-mail or pager when Web-page download times exceed a specified threshold or when the Web site becomes inaccessible and generates error conditions. The whole service costs $695 per URL for one year.
Though Web-site download time is just one facet of the overall package, upgrading does not necessarily mean a wholesale revamp of the site. Valle suggests focusing on one element of effectiveness--such as ease of use, content, accessibility, visibility or appearance--and moving on to others over time.
"When possible, I prefer to do incremental upgrades, since it's not as disruptive as a wholesale upgrade," says Valle. "The goal is to make upgrades evolutionary."
Is Your Web Site Up To Snuff?
Before jumping ahead with a full site enhancement, check out the following 12 criteria that TheNETrep, a Del Mar, California-based Web-enhancement company, uses to critique a Web site. If you follow these rules already, you may not need an overhaul at all!
Overall look: Go for clean, simple and attractive. Underwhelm.
Home page: Think billboard. Tell them exactly what you want them to know right up front--simply, clearly and immediately.
Message: It's tough to lure visitors to your site. Give them a reason to stay. What's your offer? Exactly to whom is it directed? What's in it for surfers if they stick around?
Speed: Your site must be quick. Use graphics judiciously. Try to keep each page and all its components under 20KB.
Graphics size: Appropriate graphics amplify your message, but graphics are a bandwidth hog. So reduce their dimensions and use compression software to squeeze out extra bytes.
Text legibility: A simple font on a light background is usually best. Separate wide blocks of text into columns. Leave plenty of white space.
Page "skimability": Use short headings at the beginnings of paragraphs.
Copy quality: Make your copy crisp. Keep your paragraphs and sentences short. Talk directly to the customer.
Navigation: Make your site easy to navigate. Include a link back to your home page on every page of your site.
Contact form: If you collect information, collect as little as necessary, and tell your visitor how it will be used.
Testimonials: Prominently list testimonials from your best customers.
Mistakes: You'll lose visitors if your site has broken links, missing graphics or scripts that don't run correctly. Check out your site's accessibility with all the popular browsers.
Home-To-Home, (215) 321-9525
Valley Programming Service Inc., http://www.valpro.com