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Protecting Business Online

Quantity and Quality - You Need Both To Turn Online Visitors Into Customers.
Miles J. Nixon

A good web site receives thousands of visitors a day. But how many of those visitors turn into customers? Visitors sign-up or buy products and services when they feel comfortable with everything a site is saying and doing. If a site is down, slow, or broken the visitor is usually uncomfortable and will go elsewhere. Why? Well do you like to shop in a retail store that has no customer service people in sight, is missing products, has poor lighting or is too hot or too cold? Probably not.

But many web sites have the equivalent of these situations only they are represented to visitors as problems with the site. Remember, when you're not there to talk to a customer, your web site does the talking for you and visitors make judgments strictly on their user experience at your site. When things do work the way they should work, the sign-up or checkout process is simple, the product or service is not confusing, and the whole experience feels right - the result is customers.

If this is the ultimate goal, corporate web site managers and web site owners must treat their web site with the same care they would a physical store or office. How do we assure that the user experience is always good? We ask customers and monitor experiences to find out how we are doing.

In brick and mortar retail, store managers perform this function, monitoring customer satisfaction, making sure the store is clean and tidy, keeping product in stock, and watching customer experience. In the virtual world, we don't have store managers, but we do have a relatively new emerging business category: online website monitoring. The purpose: to 'watch' the store.

Online monitoring services provide someone to mind the site/store and make sure it is open and ready to do business 24 x 7. These services can watch site performance, content, availability/reliability, and security. They can also provide site managers with immediate notification of site problems via alerts that include email, pager, and fax. By watching a site from outside the firewall and not inside, online monitoring services identify problems that cannot be immediately seen from the inside.

Monitoring services can't assure you that your site will be financially successful, but they will help you maximize the amount of business you gain from the traffic your site generates. Balancing quantity and quality are keys to a successful web site and web strategy.

Listed below is a checklist of ten things to consider when selecting and purchasing online monitoring services:

  1. How is the service provider connected to the Internet?
  2. How reliable is the monitoring service's engine itself? Is it truly 24 x 7?
  3. Is this their core business or is it an add-on to other web based services?
  4. Call or email their customer service and see how quickly they respond.
  5. Does the service monitor user experience or just up/down?
  6. Does the service reliably identify most site problems? How do you know?
  7. Will the service be there in a year? How long do you think the "free model" will last?
  8. Are the alerts and reports accurate and timely?
  9. Does the service provide enough real information to debug the site problem?
  10. Can you afford to subscribe to an online monitoring system? How much is your web business really worth?

1. How is the online service provider connected to the Internet?

A service providing online monitoring services must have redundant pipes to the Internet. Preferably those pipes are through multiple ISX or NSP's (e.g. MCI, Sprint, AT&T, Digex etc.) Connection to a local ISP is unacceptable. Local ISP's are typically susceptible to large fluctuations in traffic and are rarely equipped to support a 24x7 mission-critical operation.

2. How reliable is the monitoring engine and service site? Is it truly 24 x 7?

Check to make sure the site and service you are dealing with is reliable itself. A service that is down more than your site is down is not much help. If they provide reports, check their reports to make sure there are no disruptions in service.

3. Is this their core business or is it an add-on to other web based services?

A firm that is focused on web design, hosting or other services is probably not focused on online monitoring. Additionally, an online monitoring company should be unbiased and therefore, not affiliated with an ISP or Host Provider.

4. Call or email customer service and see how quickly they respond to your questions.

A company that is focused on your site availability should respond quickly to your requests for information or questions about the service. Customer service is paramount when problems arise. This may not seem important until your site experiences problems and you need help using the reports to debug the problems. Customer service wins customers; this is one thing that the virtual world has in common with the physical world.

5. Does the service monitor user experience or just up/down?

Site problems come in many forms and although up/down is the most critical it is more likely that other problems will affect the user experience of visitors to your site. Problems such as poor response time, missing content, and broken links are more likely to cripple your web site than up/down. More importantly, how is the up/down being performed? Many services 'ping' a site to identify up/down but this is an unreliable and unacceptable way to determine if a web site or IP device is functioning properly. The only reliable way to monitor a web site, or more specifically a URL, is to perform a number of checks to make sure the web server can be reached, is up, it's operating system is functioning (NT, Linux, Unix), the software is quickly delivering web pages with the correct images and files (IIS, Apache, Netscape), and the HTML is correct. If all of these things are working, then the site is delivering a good user experience. A well-designed service can look for errors in any one of these areas and identify communication errors at ISP's and hosts.

6. Does the service reliably identify most site problems? How do you know?

You don't know unless you test the service. Don't let your test be the first time you have a critical outage. This is not the time to find out that your online monitoring service is not working. Test your service by taking your web site down during a non-critical time period and see if your online monitoring service finds you and alerts you. Create some bad HTML or mistype a few links to see how the service handles these types of scenarios. Make sure all your alert methods are working, which could include: email, pager, and fax. It's not much use having a great service if your site managers can't be reached.

7. Will the service be there in a year? How long do you think the "free model" will last?

Do you want to trust the reliability and availability of your ecommerce or service site to a service that is offered for free? Where is the incentive to keep customers happy and keep improving the service? Do you really have a contract with the company providing the service if no money has changed hands? Legally, the answer is no!

8. Are the alerts and reports accurate and timely?

Any online monitoring service should offer you a free trial period so you can judge for yourself how well the service works. During the trial period, watch to make sure alerts are in fact accurate. Also, make sure reports are delivered in a regular and timely fashion. This will show you if the company is on top of their service.

9. Does the service provide enough information to debug site problems?

Alerts should be clear and concise, identifying the exact location, time and problem type. Reports should show you trends and identify alert conditions. Alert conditions should be categorized into Critical, Warning and Informational. This avoids the problem of "cry wolf". Alerts that are critical should arrive immediately. Other alerts should be provided in a report format.

10. Can I afford online monitoring? How much is my web business worth? How long can I afford to be down?

The question should be can you afford not to use online monitoring. Add up the investment in your site and the amount of business you project over the next 12 months and divide by the number of hours your site is operational. This value is the raw cost of downtime if you exclude salaries and infrastructure costs. Obviously, if you add back in salaries and infrastructure the cost of downtime is even higher. In the example below one hour of downtime could cost $25. Now figure out how much you can afford to be down. Remember that 99% up-time (the guarantee of some ISPs and host service providers) is 7 hours downtime per month. 99.7% is 2 hours of downtime per month. You do the math, but site downtime is expensive.

Site Value Example (*)

* Excludes salaries and site infrastructure costs.