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Adding Value to your Information Website

As a specialist publisher, you enjoy one big advantage over Google and the other big online players – your market knowledge and reputation within your niche. And, says Michael Upshall, turning this to your advantage has never been easier ... or cheaper.

By Michael Upshall

So, you’ve just completed your new, improved website. Can you now breathe a sigh of relief, and sit back for the next few months and watch the users flood in? Certainly not. It’s only now your site is running that you are in a position to evaluate it and to start to add real value.

Providing web-based content has enormous benefits for the publisher, because you can not only reach your customers faster, but also at the same time understand their needs more precisely and add value during the transaction. Although I call it a ‘transaction’, it need not involve any purchase by the customer, although it can provide revenue for the website owner and add value to the customer’s experience. How is this done? By examining the customer’s progression through the site pages, and identifying how to maximise benefit to the customer, and hence to you.

It may seem obvious to examine how your site is being navigated, but in the world of trade magazines, where advertising is a major (if not exclusive) source of publisher revenue, publishers sometimes assume the only measure of site value is to increase traffic to the site, and the only way to increase traffic is to take out their wallet and spend on paid listings or on other advertising. Instead of looking for new users, I suggest you can add value by enhancing the experience for the customers you already have using your site. Moreover, in the frantic struggle to make sure their page is found first in Google, publishers often forget that an editorial link is worth many times more than a paid link. As an experienced marketeer put it, the best place to be at a trade exhibition is chairing the exhibition conference, and the worst place is to have a stand in the vendor exhibition hall – and not just because it costs less. It’s a difference in status. I would argue that a high ranking on free listings is worth considerably more than a paid ranking.

Rather than spending money with Google, publishers can add value by becoming their own Google. Consider, for example, the case of the accidental portal owner.

The accidental portal owner discovers stickiness

"Stickiness" is the tendency of users to remain at your site. It’s worth remembering that this is not an absolute value. If you are providing UK postcodes, then the less time people spend on your site the better – success may be a shorter time, in other words. But if you are providing demonstrable benefit to your users, then longer is better.

I call the portal owner "accidental" because many publishers of trade magazines see the provision of directory-type information (list of suppliers, producers and distributors) on an equal footing with their editorial content. In the print edition, such information is often placed towards the back of each issue, after the news and features have presumably been read. But on the publisher website, navigation is much more down to user preference; and here is a marvellous opportunity to add value. Like Yellow Pages, the basic entry might be free, but there are endless opportunities to provide enhancements to this basic service. Providing paid product illustrations is one idea; additional space beyond a free entry for text content is another. Showing some links with higher priority and highlighted is a widely accepted Google-style practice; the difference is that now the money is coming in to the publisher, rather than leaving the publisher.

A fundamental advantage a trade publisher has over Google is their detailed knowledge of a specific sector, which Google can never have. Would you really trust Google to find you the best stamp collecting shop, or would you go to the Stamp Collecting Weekly website? It is difficult, if not impossible, for general search engines to provide further linked information, from the very limited information they have about the user; they have not revealed any kind of profile. But in a niche single-sector website, it is reasonable to assume that any user who arrives at your site has an interest in that sector. Consider providing paid links for your suppliers to their related activities ("more products from this supplier"). In the case of the Mars Group owning Wrigley’s, such a link is probably of little interest to end users, and would have a minimal sale price. But people coming to a digital photography site, for example, are quite likely to be interested in related themes such as scanners and in graphics software. Better still, by linking the suppliers’ related activities within your website, you run less risk of the user going to the supplier’s website and not returning.

Of course, the specific examples I give here may not be relevant for all websites – where to add value should be based on a proper analytics assessment, for example revealing which pages on your site are landing pages (not just the home page!), and which pages users spend most time on.

Be a Web 2.0 guru

Having an awareness of your customers is not so far from providing personalisation features, so you may find you already have features on your site that qualify as Web 2.0 initiatives – they just weren’t called that this time last year. You don’t have to become a world expert at avatars, wikis and blogs to create some simple personalisation on your site that will add value. A simple one is to enable users to comment on your content. The technology for this is straightforward, and many sites today allow unmoderated comments (that is, the comments are published without prior checking by in-house staff).

In what circumstances do users willingly post comments? Often, when a purchasing or evaluation decision is taking place. Users will comment willingly if they feel their comments are valued; for example, on one digital camera review website (, there are some cameras with hundreds of user evaluations, and one forum containing over one million posts (Amazon, eat your heart out!).

The presence of user comments, when highly visible, like this, is a virtuous circle. Users are pleased their comments are read; new users are reassured by the number of hits at the site, and the site owner is pleased because there is clear evidence the site is being taken seriously.

One final suggestion, although this needs to be implemented with care; you can provide links to and from editorial pages: when a company is mentioned in an editorial piece, to the relevant product and company details.

It’s the technology, stupid

Why the need to add value? Because traditional forms of revenue are threatened by the web. As stated in the Financial Times (25 July 2007), we are facing the "biters bit"; what Clayton Christensen, in his book the Innovator’s Dilemma, described as the disruption of markets by new entrants: "virtually any business accustomed to receiving a subscription, transaction fee, or other payment, is facing competition from an advertising-supported rival." In other words, the all-too-fleeting benefit provided from creating your website is almost immediately eroded by competing sites that threaten to take away your core market.

I make no apology for emphasising technology as one answer. You don’t have to be a geek to accept that technological change has the opportunity at times to level the playing field (or in Geoffrey Moore’s terminology, create a "change agent") that moves the market equilibrium dramatically. In such a situation, the combination of market understanding and technical awareness can provide a huge business advantage for the publisher. Hence, for once, I agree with Microsoft: as Jeff Raikes, head of Microsoft’s business division, said: "The real opportunity is to be nimble enough to use a core code base in a variety of delivery mechanisms and support different business models when that’s what the market merits." He was talking about a single platform to serve both subscribers and the new breed of pay-per-use customers, nimble enough to satisfy both audiences.

With the costs of a full content management system-based website having dropped to around 10% of their level five years ago, and today including configuration, training, and implementation, there is little reason to hesitate on grounds of cost. Plus, remarkably, the capabilities of information-based websites are considerably greater than those monster systems that needed a full-time support professional just to keep the site running.