Have you noticed that your online sales are lower than they used to be? Are fewer visitors clicking through your Web site? Here's an explanation you may not have considered: Your Web site may not be running as smoothly as it should be. For instance, your site's coding may not work well with multiple browsers. It may not be user-friendly, and visitors may have difficulty navigating it. Or your site may take too long to load. Studies show if a Web page doesn't load within eight seconds, roughly one-third of potential visitors give up on the site.

"You should always be checking on your Web site to make sure it is running smoothly, especially in today's environment," says Bill Gassman, a research director at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut. "Bad online experiences can cause users to leave a site, contributing to brand erosion and ultimately reducing overall revenues."

It may be time to give your site a tune-up. There are many software tools and services designed to make sure a site is in good working order. One popular service is offered by Keynote NetMechanic. The company offers HTML Toolbox 2.0, which spots and fixes common HTML code errors and generates a repaired file to upload to your Web host. It also has non-HTML-related features, such as finding out how long it takes your Web site's pages to load, and it compresses the GIF, animated GIF and JPEG images without sacrificing image quality.

The street price is $60 per year for a Web site with less than 100 pages, and $200 per year for sites with more than 100. Other companies that offer similar products and services are Watchfire and Coast Software. Analysts suggest that, to get the maximum benefit from these kinds of services, you should check your site weekly or monthly. If your site changes frequently, you should practice upkeep even more regularly.

Better Than Ever

Jeff Bjorck, a pianist and composer of acoustic piano compositions in Monrovia, California, believes strongly in making sure his Web site is running efficiently. Bjorck, who sells his CDs on his Web site, Purepiano.com, designed his site with Microsoft FrontPage and went online in 1998. But when he browsed his site as a visitor would, he discovered that it looked different in Internet Explorer than in Netscape Navigator.

"FrontPage interfaces nicely with Internet Explorer, so it looked exactly as I had designed it on that," says Bjorck, 42. "But idiosyncrasies showed up in Netscape, such as different fonts and different spacing between lines." As a result, he decided to sign on with Keynote NetMechanic. For starters, the tools fixed the HTML code so that it could function on Netscape and other browsers. Bjorck also found out from Keynote NetMechanic that his site's home page had a slow load time when used with slower modems.

"I'm an artist; I like lots of graphics," says Bjorck. "But I didn't realize that when you put all those things in there, while it may look nice, somebody [might leave] your site because it was taking too long to download."

The tools also optimized the images-reducing their file sizes (not the actual image dimensions), allowing the page to load faster. "I also got rid of some graphics," adds Bjorck. "I want people to have a home page that loads immediately. Even if it doesn't look quite as nice, it's faster, and they have the information in front of them."

You might also be losing visitors because your site is difficult to navigate. Often, as new content is added, sites outgrow their initial navigational structure. So examine your site to make sure it's organized into logical categories, that the navigation is clear and easy to follow, and that visitors are never more than a couple of clicks from their destination. If your site doesn't meet these criteria, it's time to consider a redesign.

Performance Metrics

Bjorck makes every effort to ensure his site is running well and that he's getting the best possible search results. In general, though, are most Web sites performing well? According to Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, principal and co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g), the answer is yes. From 2000 to 2002, there was a 4 percent increase-to 49 percent-in the number of e-commerce Web sites complying with usability guidelines as outlined in NN/g's "E-Commerce User Experience" report. The top five areas of greatest improvement included using a standard and simple search style and eliminating technical problems as well as outdated content.

"Web usability for e-commerce sites is not exactly improving at the rate of Moore's law [which describes the increasing speed of microprocessors], but it's getting better," says Nielsen. "If we continue at this rate for the next 15 years, we'll reach full compliance with all the usability guidelines."

Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in Brooklyn, New York.