Managing the ecommerce eco-verse

Nov 02, 2011 9:30 PM  By

Setting up and running a competitive ecommerce platform requires more than just a basic system to manage inventory, customers, offers and orders. The ecommerce world offers an ever-expanding cluster of modules, add-ons and enabling technologies that extend a platform’s basic functionality to enhance the merchant’s chances of success in competitive marketplaces.

These range from image and content management, email and real-time chat, to “affinity” displays for cross-sells and upsells, site search and search engine optimization tools, and so on.

What impact does this ecommerce “eco-verse” have on managing your ecommerce solution? What does it cost to maintain the eco-verse, and what impact does this have on selection of a basic ecommerce platform to begin with? Does it really “take a village” to get this done right?

As a rule of thumb, the add-ons, utilities and functions in the ecommerce eco-verse can account for up to 50% of the overall time and cost of a typical ecommerce implementation. Even more critical are the technology hurdles some of these add-ons could impose, making one system potentially a barrier to the adoption of other technologies.

Some of the most expensive ecommerce systems do, in fact, offer a one-stop-shop, with most, if not all, of the tools that you will need to maintain an effective website. The irony, of course, is that the merchants that can afford these systems are the very companies most likely to have a wider variety of needs and requirements, or more specialized implementations that require not just breadth of options, but depth of functionality as well.

Which means that the most compelling argument for using a rather basic ecommerce platform with multiple add-ons is that you can not only tailor the eco-verse to achieve a better fit, but also more easily mix-and-match modules as your needs change and evolve.

SITE SEARCH CHALLENGES

One of the best examples of this is site search, which is a very different challenge from the more familiar SEO — the cute, sexy sibling that gets all the attention. But in fact, the success of your ecommerce site is more likely to be determined by site search within the website than it is by optimizing search engine results.

After all, if your customers or prospects find your site but cannot find what they want once they’re there, or if it takes too much time and effort to find it, they will most likely look somewhere else.

The big challenge with site search is that prospects or customers don’t always search for things the way someone who is intimately familiar with your product line would search. So not only do you have to accommodate mistyping and misspelling, you also have to take into account brand names vs. generic terms, model numbers (which can be different on identical products), and brief vs. full product names (“joy stick” vs. “push-button joy stick”). And what about “gearbox” vs. “gear box”?

A robust content management tool such as FindWatt can take care of prerequisite functions like faceting, normalization de-abbreviation, de-concatenation and inference. Once optimized, your content can be more easily searched via a specialized site-search tool. These include Learning Search from SLI Systems, Endeca Latitude, SearchSpring, Adobe Search&Promote (formerly from Omniture), Google Site search, atomz, BayNote, PicoSearch, Sovoia, Freefind, Nextopia, Fusionbot, jrank, and CyberSiteSearch.

OTHER MODULES

OTHER APPROACHES:
There are a few other tactics for ecommerce systems. The first is to use a company like Thanx Media, which custom-designs websites using many of the types of tools listed (it has partnership arrangements with 10 of them) and a best practices/best-of-breed approach.

Of course, this doesn’t entirely resolve the issue: You may still not find a particular module to meet your own best practices and still have to employ one or more additional modules. This puts you just a half-step ahead of the game.

The other approach is to do it yourself with an “add-on friendly” ecommerce platform, such as Divinity, Lexicon or Demandware. The Demandware LINK program, which sets a high standard, consists of more than 90 well-regarded third-party module providers in 22 categories who are “precertified” and approved by Demandware using a rigorous vetting process to ensure a good integration for a quality product.

Demandware users don’t need to pay anything additional to use the LINK modules, nor do the certified partners pay anything to Demandware. The partners’ obligation is to maintain the standards set by Demandware for participation.
— ES

These are some of the most common modules and some of the major solutions they comprise. There are literally hundreds of systems in each category, so our apologies to the vendors we have missed. And note also that many of these companies offer services in more than one category.

  • Content management: Autonomy, FatWire (Oracle), Express Engine, EZ Publish, Vivvo, Adobe Business Catalyst, Sitefinity, Joomla!

  • Digital asset/image management: Scene7 (Adobe), ThirdLight, iView MediaPro, Interwoven, iBase, Alfresco

  • Product reviews/rankings: Solid Cactus Star Reviews, Klaggle, rating-system.com, Bazaarvoice

  • Affinity product recommendations: MyBuys, BuySight, Certona, BayNote, Quantivo

  • Guided selling: iGoDigital, technicon, xpertrule, Amadesa

  • Email management: Bronto, Harte-Hanks, Responsys, Experian CheetahMail, ExactTarget, Lyris, Silverpop, Eloqua, Constant Contact, iContact, Salesboom.com, Vertical Response, Attain Response, Informz, Gold Lasso, YesMail, MailChimp, myEmma, AWeber, AllWebEmail, CoolerEmail, Mad Mimi, Delivra, Stream Send

  • Affiliate marketing: LinkShare, Doubleclick, Performics, Guidester, Commission Junction, Google AdWords

  • Incentives, promotion management: Broadvision eMerchandising

  • Price optimization: runa

  • Customer service: eGain, Kayako Support Suite, Vivisimo, eStara

  • Live chat: RightNow Technologies, Vivisimo, LivePerson, LiveChatNow!, Quorus, Velaro, ZazaChat, Live2Support.com, BoldChat, websiteAlive.com, HelponClick.com, Providesupport.com, WhosOn.com, SightMax.com, eTalkup, LiveHelper, 123LiveHelp, SiteChatter.com, PHPLive

  • Customer surveys: Silverpop Engage, Constant Contact

  • Campaign management: Eloqua, Aprimo, Alterian, Pega, Silverpop, eSalesTrack, Mindfireinc.com, Salesboom.com, Neolane, Valtira, Campaigner, VisiStat.com

  • Personalized URLs: Easypurl.com, Mindfireinc.com

  • Fraud detection/prevention: Retail Decisions, CyberSource, Buysafe, DigitalResolve, Iovation, Accertify, the41st.com, kount.com, maxmind.com, Guardian Analytics, authorize.net, motifinc.com

  • Performance monitoring: Gomez, AlertSite, ForeSee Results, Keynote, Coradiant (now part of BMC), Webmetrics, Alertmefirst, AlertBot.com, AlertSite.com, Host-tracker.com, Mon.itor.us, Dotcom-monitor.com, Neotys.com, Uptrends.com, Site24x7.com, Exclamationsoft.com, Vertain.com, Watchmouse.com, Pingdom.com, websitepulse.com, Internetseer.com

  • Search engine marketing/optimization: Google, Icrossing, Oneupweb, searchmetrics.com, raventools, seocockpit.com, LinkVendor, myseotool.com, SEOCentro

  • Social shopping: TurnTo, DecisionStep (Shop Together), Quorus Discuss, United Cloud (Shared Shopping), IBM Websphere Coshopping, buzzstream, venpop.com, Gigya, Fluid Social, Social Annex

  • Wish lists: Wishpot.com

  • Retargeting: Criteo, Clicksor, Adroll, Dotomi, TellApart, Fetchback

  • M-commerce: Usablenet, Digby, Mad Mobile, Unbound Commerce, Moonshadow Mobile, MyBuys Mobile

LOOKING AHEAD

Not every successful ecommerce merchant needs to incorporate a cluster of add-on modules, though most mortals with average margins in competitive markets certainly do.

So where is all this headed? Most likely, the end game for the ecommerce eco-verse will not be a reduction any time soon in the number or types of modules in the ecoverse through a simple Darwinian struggle for survival.

Rather, my guess is that within five years, smartphone and tablet platforms will overtake desktop browsers in the ecommerce world, and the modules best adapted to that environment will prevail.

Of course, many of the modules are “background” applications that are platform agnostic. But when a company like IBM’s Sterling Commerce puts its large-scale order management system on the iPhone and gives away significant components of that solution on the iStore, this has to be the leading edge of a major development.

We may see the return of the kind of “walled garden” that AOL was when the Internet first took off in the late ’90s. If a browser-based aggregation site (Google Chrome and Plus?) were to mature into a platform that accomplished 90% of what people do online, many of the add-ons would be either consumer-facing or admin-facing apps for that platform.

And if this is on the next-gen ultraportable unit, then apps for things like augmented reality would have an even bigger role to play (as “virtual sales reps”). Ecommerce merchants would use apps to differentiate themselves in that walled garden.

It’s still the eco-verse, but when it’s apps rather than modules, they’re likely to be cheaper and easier to use. And of course, if it’s like current “app stores,” there won’t be hundreds of them — soon there will be thousands!

Ernie Schell (ernie@schell.com) is director of the consultancy Marketing Systems Analysis in Ventnor, NJ.