“What should I look for in site-building software?”

This month’s experts – John Abbott of Turnaround Computing and Vivian Zottola of Worldweb.net-answer the question

Regardless of whether you can afford $10,000 or $100,000, there are four main areas to look at when software shopping:

– Performance. Web shoppers don’t like waiting – nor do they have to; with a few clicks of the keyboard they can skip from your Website to that of your leadingcompetitor. So your site’s search engine, to name one function, needs to be fast and easy. The software needs to index each word in a product description so that it can be found quickly.

And make sure your pages take less than 5 seconds to load. The only exception is for complex searches with more than one keyword or qualifier. These results should resemble a catalog page. If a shopper enters “8-inch steel widget” into the search engine, he wants the results to appear in the form of a catalog page or pages containing pictures, descriptions, and the order capability for all the widgets that fit the description.

And since you can’t anticipate the results of each search beforehand, you need software that can create dynamic pages – pages generated on demand from a database.

– Capacity. This is not just the number of shoppers your site can handle at one time; it is also how many items your site can sell without slowing down. As a rule of thumb, make sure your software can manage at least 100,000 SKUs.

– Scalability. To determine whether a package is scalable enough, estimate how many shoppers your site will need to deal with at one time – then multiply that by 1,000. Now find out how your software system would tackle that kind of load.

– Flexibility. Don’t let the software dictate how your catalog behaves. Many packages do, and the result is that all the online catalogs using the same software look similar.

Look for the ability to design custom pages for special products. The layout of pages should be up to your graphics designer, not your software. But you also need the ability to create product pages from a template, because it is neither practical nor desirable to separately design the layout of thousands of product pages.

Here are a few software package features to consider:

– Separation of form and content. Software designed to let you build and manage layout and content separately allows you to make quick changes to text, format, style, and structure immediately. Design professionals can make changes to the navigation and look of the site, while content creation remains the domain of the writers, merchandisers, etc. Best of all, the information presented on the site no longer has to pass through an HTML programmer who can introduce inconsistencies and errors.

– XML. This programming language allows you to describe data in a flexible way that can make indexing, searching, and archiving faster and easier than with HTML. It also facilitates the separation of form from content. Look for software that is flexible and smart enough to let you design your own XML schema or document descriptions.

– Openness. Ensure that you can link the software to any critical systems, whether they’re new or legacy. It also helps to have software that is nonproprietary and comes with a well-documented application programming interface (API) so that you can extend it to meet any unique needs you may have. Manufacturers will generally indicate this by stating that they have a published API with their product.

– Staff leverage. Look for tools that can be parsed out according to staff functions, rather than controlled by IS. Choose software that closely mimics, or can be customized to mimic, the work flow already established in your company.

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