Web Site, Relaunching A
WEB SITE, RELAUNCHING A
The work to be done on a Web site usually doesn't end simply because the site goes live. Most sites of any complexity require ongoing maintenance; technological changes compel operators of Web sites to upgrade their pages in order to look current, offer new features, and maintain compatibility with new software and standards. By one estimate, major sites have tended to relaunch in some fashion every ten months or so, and with a few noteworthy exceptions, retail sites seem particularly susceptible to relaunching.
The main difference between a relaunch and more pedestrian maintenance sometimes boils down to how the maintenance cycle is organized. Usually a relaunch implies introducing a collection of changes and improvements, analogous to versions of software applications. Because applications are centralized on Web servers, however, it is easier to release small, incremental changes more frequently than is practical with traditional client/server software. As a result, some sites undergo constant retooling and revision, but never announce it as a relaunch, while others make a point of touting their new and improved wares. It may also be a matter of work organization, such as when a separate team of Web developers focuses on the new site, which becomes a clearly defined project in itself, as opposed to the staff who keep the existing site running.
Thus relaunching a site can be seen as a type of maintenance, albeit at the heavy end of the maintenance scale. Occasionally a Web site is relaunched because the old version was fundamentally flawed or ill-suited to the company's needs, but more often re-launches are closer to incremental improvements on an existing set of concepts and technical infrastructure. Thus relaunches are a way of life for major sites like IBM.com, which reached its eleventh version in 2001.
The exact reasons sites relaunch often stem from their individual histories, but there are three general motivators: enhancing technical features, creating a new or different brand image, and giving the site a fresh look. Often two or even all three of these factors are involved in a decision to relaunch or upgrade.
At one level, of course, all changes to a Web site have technical ramifications, but relaunches based on technical features are concerned with offering new functions, new applications, easier navigation, and so on. These upgrades have tended to take different forms as the Web has evolved. Many of the earliest relaunches by large corporations were migrating from the so-called brochureware of text-and image-based descriptive sites to more interactive models, many featuring personalization options that allowed users to create accounts and store personal preferences and information on the site. A further extension of this was the much celebrated (and sometimes later lamented) push toward e-commerce, enabling online transactions of all sorts. Behind the scenes, such revisions were sometimes related to the adoption of customer relationship management (CRM) systems and advanced application servers from vendors like BEA, IBM, Oracle, and Sun.
If the benefits of a technical upgrade are new front-and back-end capabilities, the drawback can be in a bumpy transition. Retooling a large site can be exceedingly complicated and may lead to unexpected problems, as was the case in a publicized failure during an ambitious relaunch of eBay.com in 1999. The company didn't devote adequate staffing to the project, and the result was costly downtime in which visitors could not use the site or all of its functions.
Creating a new brand image—or significantly revising an existing one—is a weighty marketing decision, usually separate from any technical considerations. Companies face rebranding, for example, when they merge or are party to an acquisition, when their marketing results are substantially below potential, or when they adopt a new marketing or commerce strategy.
The risk is, of course, that the new brand image will alienate the market and cause the company to lose some of the equity it had established in its brand. When confronted with change, customers often adopt an agnostic, even wary stance, requiring the company to demonstrate to them again that its brand is worth their loyalty and high regard. For instance, long Flash animations on the home page—a trend of the late 1990s as the Flash language and higher-speed connections came into vogue—are widely considered annoyances that may drive some visitors away.
In situations like mergers and acquisitions, however, the company has little choice but to relaunch in order to reflect the new identity of the combined firm. Here the relaunch is most likely part of an integrated marketing program aimed at raising awareness of the new company and articulating its value new propositions to potential customers; Web content may be reinforced by advertising and publicity efforts.
Most, if not all, large sites have some form of program in place to keep the look and feel of the site fresh. Many have a specific technical infrastructure in place to do some of this on the fly, relatively speaking, rather than waiting for programmers to make each change on an individual basis. These sites automate the revision process by using content management systems and other architectures which allow site operators to quickly swap in new elements on pages.
When content shuffling isn't enough, companies opt for a larger revision or relaunch. This kind of approach has been especially visible among some of the so-called bricks-and-clicks retailers like J.C. Penney, Target, Rite Aid, and Wal-Mart, whose Web presence thus far has only been a small portion of their overall retail volume. They may, for instance, put a new face on the site for the Christmas holiday season, only to change it again in springtime. For these retailers the loss of brand equity is less of a concern, as their image is more keenly tied to their physical outlets. Clearly for many of these retailers changing the Web site is akin to the unending cycle of redecorating their stores and building new merchandise displays.
A few online retailers have avoided radical re-launches. The most prominent is Amazon.com, arguably the best-known retail site and one almost solely dependent on its online brand. Most of Amazon's changes have been subtle and gradual, and while its offerings have changed considerably over the years, it has largely stayed off the relaunch track.
Krill, Paul. "A Bet on Technology." InfoWorld, September 17, 2001.
Maddox, Kate. "By Design: With Version 11, IBM.com Takes Care of the Customer." B to B, May 28, 2001.
Warren, Liz. "What's in a Name?" Computer Weekly, August 23, 2001.
SEE ALSO: Web Site Basics; Web Site Design and Set-up; Web Site Usability Issues