One of the great parts of a trade show is being able to quickly see trends. You can see what companies are going after similar markets. You can see what companies are just getting starting in meeting a customer’s need and who is well along the development cycle. Internet Retailer-2012 gave me another chance to see an industry developing. Monetate is a single company represents new trends multivariate
Monetate is a single company represents new trends multivariate ecommerce platform optimization.
At IRCE 2012 (Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition) at Chicago’s McCormick Place this week, I was able to how the cost of computing continually dropping is affecting how we merchandise (1st on line, but you know the wisdom will be carried to bricks and mortar stores as well).
One of the booths I got to see was Monetate. What stood out for me was how much computing is being done in real time and in an anticipatory fashion. In essence,
they are taking your shopping cart system (which may in all likelihood is probably a very large collection of SKU’s, Descriptions, media assets) and creating variations of it for all sorts of testing. They can test – by what city you come from, or if it is raining today. They can test or present – based on your past history with you, or how close you are to a Walmart. They can even handle compound testing: if you are a repeat customer on a rainy day, in a media market that is inexpensive, and there is a festival this weekend in town.
Watching the monetate’s demo and remembering their presentations, I am reminded of when I used to run scenario’s and forget to limit the sample size to ‘reasonable
number’. I would get my manager bringing my report the next day, He would show me the chargeback cost (in the mainframe days) that exceeded both my and my manager’s cost for a year. Monetate’s system lets me create these scenario’s on an ongoing basis either as test, or production – in real time.
What I see here is the magic of being able to move as much computing power before the web customer shows up. It also is able to quickly identify what the identity of each visitor is. This allows responding much more like a human store clerk would – making many decisions with ease because once you know the ‘rules’ they are easy and ‘obvious’. A store clerk seeing a visitor show up on a long skateboard is probably more interested in snowboarding then ski’s or toboggans. A customer wearing a $4,000 watch is probably not looking at the costume jewelry in the corner of the store. These snap judgements are what allow us to determine which of the thousands of cars we pass on our way to work will be a problem, and which are just going along in our lane that can be ignored safely.
We have been trying to get computers to have this same ‘artificial intelligence’ for decades. And we are still a long way from AI. But increasingly, we are able to in small domains, define experiments that let us test and tweak. Testing what is the best way to present information or experiences for website visitors that meet their needs on their terms. Monetate is helping that become incredibly easier for online shopping.
One of the other keys I see in Monetate (and similar tools), is the ability embrace Lean Startup methodology. The concept of iteration. The key is understanding that now that your cost of experimentation is lower than analysis, the best approach is lowest cost in revenue optimizing is different. When each computer batch ran on a mainframe cost thousands of dollars and days of time, it was far more effective to spend more time ‘bench testing’ ideas. We would sit around and using human power to determine the best approach. But, when a computer can now not only check your theory, but create a method to retest against different data (be it a Texas visitor over an Oregon visitor, or this month’s customers over last quarter’s customers), it is poor use of resources (especially human) to think about what the results are, and ‘just do it’. Let the system or computer or software do the testing and provide the results.
The challenge will be not in saving the last CPU cycles to run one more test, but how to let our creative juices loose again to see how to continually improve the solutions we are trying to build. One of the big challenges for many in ‘corporate’ is to understand that website visitors are individuals. The market of potential customers need to (as much as possible) be treated as individuals. As we learn to look at our visitors as having different mindsets, often determined by factors we can identify, we will be able to create better experiences for our customers.
There is a whole other dimension of visitor privacy that enters into this, but I am not going to tackle that one today.
As usual, monetate’s solutions are an incredible toolset that lifts one burden from the ecommerce manager allowing a much larger responsibility to rise to the top – looking at the world from the customer’s perspective. It was never – not the top priority, but now, there are a many fewer excuses as to why we cannot focus on the customer’s view point.
As a SaaS, they will verify your data as it comes in from forms (API call, XML return) or files:
- IP Address
- Score your leads
Like other solutions I talked to, pricing starts at a penny ($.01USD) per verification and goes down with quantity. The need for solving the age old problem of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) becomes more significant now that we can base entire campaigns and strategies based on data that may or may not be valid. Everything we can do to remove bad data from our warehouses is as important as removing the bad apples from our barrels. Our data warehouses can be corrupted by untrustworthy data just like our inventory warehouses can be corrupted by mice.
A cost effective solution that helps keep the bad data out of the warehouse in the 1st place can save us money for years to come. Imagine not mailing to a just 100 bad addresses for 5 years at 1.15 per catalog quarterly. Now imagine how your reputation will improve by not frustrating that bad address for 5 years and the other 3 people that tend to see each mailing and think your organization is inept. Imagine not calling that wrong number for years and bothering the wrong person.
But that is only looking at it from our perspective. From the users perspective, what if you can be helpful and let them know they made a mistake. Before the order is shipped to the wrong house. Before they never get the email you promised them. Before you are unable to call them back and they are waiting for your call. Before you disappoint them one more time and destroy the relationship before it ever gets started. Customers know you are tracking them. Most assume you have great skills to look into their credit card, because sites are tracking them around the Internet. If you don’t verify the simple stuff, how will they trust you with the important stuff (credit card number). Verification is coming (just as AMEX who bought Accertify), so start looking at the solutions now and planning or even start implementing.
These tools have great potential. Of course nothing is perfect, but the accuracy of your checker is key. I have not had a chance to test XVerify out yet, but I look forward to it and plan to report back when I can.
IRCE 2012 – BoldChat from LogMeIn (review from Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition tradeshow)
Another review from what I discovered at IRCE (Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition) tradeshow in Chicago, IL.
One of the more interesting solutions I found for eCommerce sites was from one of my favorite SaaS providers – LogMeIn. They have been providing great remote access for my remote support needs, as well as for many clients. LogMeIn is an easy solution to implement – a quick client based program, and you have the ability to access your (or your clients) computer from any current browser. It handles multiple monitors and has multiple layers of security. They have different levels of product from Free (really free) to enterprise.
LogMeIn has introduced BoldChat (they may well rename or at least redo the logo which looks like 3 different words) as a low cost chat solution, a midrange solution and an enterprise solution to go up against LivePerson.
The low cost option is Free – http://boldchat.com/free-live-chat-software.asp. Can’t beat that cost, the limitations seem to be reasonable. The biggest limitations are how many chats per month, and how many concurrent sessions are running. This is enough to get most small ecommerce sites up and going, allow them to build those FAQ answers, and design how to organize your resources for prompt response. By the time the number of chats (750 per month) is becomes limiting, the next level should be a no brainer for your organization to fund at less then a fast food lunch is these days.
The basic level is $99 per seat per year or $9 per month. So for less then a Vonnage account, or RingCentral or any other telephony solutions (well maybe Skype can be less) you have a great way to be able to have chat. Complete with a self documenting solution for building your business into a repeatable solution.
The enterprise level has more features, and does cost less then your typical rent for the desk space and share of a break room for your agent. This level will integrate into SalesForce.com, have predictive messaging, better integration across team members and more reporting. At the enterprise level the mindset is to work more collaboratively as a team across your chat team.
Chat is quickly becoming the expected norm in ecommerce to assist in providing excellent quality service to visitors who want to learn about your product. If you don’t provide enough service on the site, they will take there business elsewhere with the click of a mouse or often with a quick jump in the car. Chat is also an opportunity to see into the customers real needs and questions, rather then having to guess what they are looking for. This tools allows you to collect real questions (in the way real visitors ask them, not how you think they ask them), and allow you to sculpt your most appropriate answers for re-use.
If you are planning on having relationships with your clients and will be using the Internet, plan on experimenting and testing with chat as soon as possible. It’s useful not just in answering a few questions while juggling another voice call, but also in having a self documenting way to collect answers for your next agents, and sales team members. These can be collected and put into a FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions (a whole other post). That is one of the easier ways to implement the systems approach of Michael Gerber’s E-Myth Revisited of working ON your business, rather then IN your business.
One of my projects is helping out a small non-profit. Their advocacy website is in WordPress. So when WordPress.org let them know that a new version was out, WordPress recommended upgrading 3 days after the release. The non-profit had a natural question: Should we upgrade our site to the new version? Seems logical. Newer is better, right?
Well not so fast.
The issue is one of managing risk by understanding the risks and the benefits. Here is where some analysis can be helpful.
Story of Wedding Cakes
In one of my former lives, I was an event photographer. I always vowed (pun intended) to not do weddings. The primary reason – the expectations of the customer (bride) are unreal. On that magical day, expectations are unreal and beyond control. If the baker makes a mistake, I as the photographer am already doomed. The expectation is perfection. For the entire wedding day. Everything. Including the weather. If anyone on the ‘team’ makes a mistake and all fail. Especially since everyone can make a cake, press a button on a camera (or cell phone, or a computer). So the question becomes why is making a cake (especially for a wedding day) so complicated? Well after listening to a few bakers and artists, I learned there are a thousand critical points where a simple cake turns complicated. Mostly because for each layer you add, all the little mistakes on the layer below it show up. Those little mistakes get amplified until you end up with the tower of Pisa or worse. While it may all work in the shop, taking it to the wedding or putting it out in public can expose those issues in ways not desired.
It becomes about risk. And managing risk. You cannot get rid of all the risks, but you can mitigate and prevent risk in many ways. Did I mention that risk plays into it.
Simple WordPress Upgrade – that’s all
A similar situation exists with a ‘simple’ WordPress website.
Now don’t get me wrong, I feel WordPress is a great tool for most websites (since most websites are simple in objective and construction). For those websites that is is not the case (more complicated) the conversation becomes far more nuanced. And I recommend WordPress as the 1st consideration for a site. Even if it does not belong on WordPress, it becomes a great prototyping tool, and scrum development platform for at least a place to converse with key stakeholders.
Recently, I was asked ‘should we upgrade to the latest version of WordPress?’ WordPress 3.3 had been released 4 days ago, and logging in to update the site created a prompt to upgrade. The short answer was ‘not now’. But I was not in a short answer mood. A big part of the issue was risk management, and the software layers involved like the layers on a wedding cake. I took this opportunity to have a teach able moment in understanding more about what is happening on a website.
Layers Upon Layers Upon Layers
In the world of web services, that layer cake that creates a website is sometimes referred to as LAMP (Linux, Apache, MS Sql, PHP). A whole other topic worthy of its own site, let alone a single entry. But back to the layers on our website ‘cake’ for this non-profit site.
- Why, let me start with listing the layers we are using, and where there could be issues:
- The hosting company hardware – usually shielded by the operating system. In fact most people working with a hosting company do not even know what the hardware is, or when it was last updated or changed. Not knowing is fine, but that hardware may not play well with this new version. But maybe this new release creates a lot more disk input/output and an old model hard drive cannot handle it. It it is a new ‘fancy’ SSD drive not optimized for this change and will wear out in only a couple of week. Perhaps the hardware is very slow in its RAM, and this new version is optimized for fast RAM and actually slows down because of this hardware configuration. Probably only a .1% chance of causing grief in this scenario.
- The hosting company OS (operating system), typically a Linux variation for most hosting companies not using heavy database tools. Again typically hidden, and takes some effort to determine the micro-release. But this is key in making sure all the hardware plays with the software. Whose version (or distribution) of Linux probably adds .1% risk. The micro-release adds about a .2% chance of challenge. (.4% running total)
- The web serving software (typically Apache or Microsoft IIS) and it’s micro-release. Again another layer to work in partnership with all other layers. This adds a .8% chance of challenge, mostly because it is more directly accessed and more configurable by the hosting company to meet the needs of the type of hosting (shared, virtual hosting, VPS-virtual private server, full server, reselling…). (1.2% running total)
- The control panel software (cPanel being the largest in the Apache web hosting management arena). This is the tool that lets you manage your hosting account. It lets you:
- create users,
- email accounts,
- empty log files,
- add more space for x subdomain,
- lock out Suzy’s account until she pays, or forward until she returns from long term absence.
- This adds about .3% risk to the stack. (1.5% running total)
- The install software. This is typically a button on the control panel software. Sometimes it needs to be updated to handle the customizations in the lower layers. This adds about.5% risk to the stack (2% running total)
- Add-ins – these can be at almost any of these levels but 2 main areas would be at the Apache/web serving software like a spam tool on the server, or log tracking tool (for collecting traffic statistics). Depending on how many are running, for a stable hosting company they add .1% risk to upgrading a WordPress level. (2.1% running total)
- WordPress release itself. This it what is creating the website on top of all the other layers to be shared with the world through the WWW. This adds risk based on where WordPress is in its lifecycle (the risk changes from when the product is new and ‘raw’, to stable, to needing to change and catch up to other tools that are ‘beating’ it in the industry, to being at its end of life cycle). At this point in WordPress’ cycle I would estimate that a .x (vs x. or .xx release) adds 1.5% risk to a stable ‘simple’ website. Part of this risk is just updating any software that is installed and running over installing from scratch. It is much easier to build from scratch in most software then to overlay running software and not do any harm (3.6% running total)
Plugins or Add-ons to WordPress. These are the SEO optimization tools, traffic analysis tools, and the other 17,409 plugins currently registered at WordPress.ORG (http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/). These can add lots of challenge and conflicts. This is where a patient attitude can pay off in saved aspirin and Tylenol. This adds 2% to the risk (5.6% running total)
- The theme in WordPress. There are 1,458 as of today registered at WordPress (http://wordpress.org/extend/themes/). This is just what is registered at the site. This layer is the template gives the look and feel of the site, integrates all the previous layers (especially the plugins) to the site. Since this is on top of WordPress, it is more susceptible to issues. The risk level here is a function of how mature the software it is sitting on, and how major the release is. In this case a 3.x release, and a simple theme with few plugins (sorry for adding so many weasel words here, but it gets specific quickly) I estimate the risk at .2% (5.8% running total)
- Customization of the WordPress theme – this can be very minimal from changing the color theme from blue to green, or as major as adding a blog to a theme that was not designed for it. In this example, we had minimal customization on a simple theme. I estimate it adds .1% risk. (5.9% running total risk)
- Some tweaks to the stack that the hosting company added that is not clear, documented and well maintained. This is a black box of unknown. Since I did not choose or research this hosting company, I will guess the risk factor by the size and reputation of the hosting company. A better way to determine a more accurate risk estimate would be to look at the questions and comments posted by customers of the hosting company based on real issues they have had. Part of the detective work is to look at the responses and timeline of the hosting company. My estimate is .2% in this instance. (6.1% running total)
- Security patches applied to all the layers listed above based on when they came out, how thoroughly they were tested and how long they have been applied. Add .1% risk this month. (6.2% running total)
Add all the risk estimates up (sorry, the risk is cumulative), and the potential risk to upgrade is around 1 in 18 upgrades will have some challenge. This is where a testing and roll-back plan comes into play. And that is a whole other entry.
Conclusion on New WordPress Release
As complicated as this all sounds, new releases do usually work quite well. They typically run far more reliably then my car. The world we live in is complicated, but our ability to understand its systems is also incredible. Embrace the fun of change. Even a field of sugar cane and acres of wheat that make the wedding cake changes and evolves. Ask any farmer and they will certainly tell you about risk and risk management. Just like our web serving stack.
But remember there is risk, and consider the trade off of benefit to risk in your upgrade decisions. Oh, that is a whole other side to this analysis – what are the benefits of a change, or in this case an upgrade?
What kind of risk management do you typically perform in your decisions to upgrade software? Comment and contribute to the conversation below.
Search Engine Optimization uses a variety of tools. Obviously a computer, and different software. Today I wanted to look at one of the tools I use to make life more efficient not just for SEO, but also for all my computer work. I have been typing since high school, but just like I have been bicycling forever, does not mean I don’t use a car when appropriate, does not mean I don’t use other tools to speed my data input. Nuance has a voice recognition tool called Dragon Naturally Speaking to speed up my data input. I have been using Dragon on and off for over a decade, and first looked at voice recognition in 1983 from Texas Instruments, when they best known for making calculators.
Nuance seems to always be discounting Dragon Naturally Speaking (DNS) in November each year, probably in advance of the next version coming out in December or right after the 1st of the year (probably based on how well they meet their deadlines). Therefore many clients consider improving their ability to create documents and all the other promises of voice recognition. The holy grail of perfect voice recognition will probably never be here, but it does keep getting better. A 1% improvement in accuracy is about 20 less errors on a page of text, a .5% improvement is still 10 less errors on a page to have to manually correct. That adds up quickly when you time is worth anything.
The headset that comes with Dragon Naturally Speaking is known to be crap by Nuance and others. Technically there are 2 different voice processing chips used in most wired USB headsets (using the builtin connectors is a strain on the PC, although the newer computers may be able to handle it). The cost to manufacture is about 3-5 cents difference between the two chips, so you can not tell by price which model is using which, and even a single brand line (such as Logitech) will use both. But at $20-50 you can almost by 2 or 3, and return the ones that don’t work well.
I could not tell you why Nuance, the latest owner of DNS (they have been sold a few times over the years) chooses to set so many potential customers with bad equipment that will hate voice recognition for years to come, and especially DNS, but they do. Perhaps they really do want to work only with resellers that know the dirty secret, or they want to keep expectations low for another 5-10 years. But the strategy sure seems counter intuitive.
Regardless, now that DNS is so relatively inexpensive (often as low as $35 for home edition on sale), and decent headsets are as well ($25-50), consider finishing the tool kit of voice recognition and purchase a decent USB or bluetooth headset before installing Dragon Naturally Speaking.
There are some inherent limitations to bluetooth, but they still work well. I researched which was best. I spent a lot of time reading the reviews and where possible reviews that did more testing then just ‘it feels’. Eventually I was led to talking to the engineer who actually worked on the Drgaon Naturally Speaking (DNS). He is now a reseller of the product, but mostly does consulting on effective implementation into your business. He recommended (even though he does not sell it) the Parrot VXi Xpressway last year when I bought mine.
DNS will create a different profile for each headset (since they are sound ‘different’ to the software), so switching does have the challenge of making A headset vs. B headset vs. C built-in comparison a little more challenging (but better then training with mic x and then testing with mic y).
Long story short, spend an extra $25 dollars (and a willingness to try a few, and return if nescessary) to get a good USB headset. Better yet, keep some cords off your desk and get a bluetooth headset for around $100 and get some mobility and voice recognition improvement.
Hope this technical interlude helps.
What hardware tools do you use to improve your efficiency? Comment below and join the conversation.
From Oren S./M/Newington,CT)
Whats the best way to create a bootable disk?
It depends on version of OS that you want to create the bootable disk. UBCD from Download.com (a CBS (the TV conglomerate) site of shareware programs that are pre-checked for virus’ and malware) is a good tool. UBCD (short for Ultimate Boot CD/Compact Disc) is a program that allows you to create and load a few programs to create a bootable CD.
- Start Menu|Run|CMD|Format a:/sys if you still have a 3.5 diskette.
There are other tools built into MS Vista and I believe MS Win7, but I am not as familiar with them. You can also use UBCD to create a bootable thumbdrive or flash drive if you can have your PC boot from USB port. Otherwise the install disks that may have come with your PC as operating system may work to be able to boot directly from a CD.
One of the best practices for website conversion also lines up (often) with better rankings on SRP (Search Results Page) – simple language, and good readability scores.
The issue is that once you get someone to your site it needs to be easy to read. There are exceptions, but how often are the buyers (of your product or ideas) really looking to work hard to understand what you have written? Of course Google is no genius either (although many that work there are). It is designed to look at your site as others without sophisticated degrees and high end language skills would look at your site. Of course, I am like many who like to slip into the shorthand of our vernacular and the jargon of each industry. But I do so at my own peril. And increasingly, at my own laziness. MS Word has had analysis of the reading level of your documents for at least a decade. But there are also online tools available as well. They are often for free, that are quick and easy to use.
Understand that the Wall Street Journal writes its content for 11th grade. Most novels are written at the 8th to 10th grade level (remember we had to read them in high school). However, take a look at most websites, they are written for graduate level. How many websites have you seen with humongous long words, utilizing complex sentence structures reminiscent of academic papers that put everyone to sleep (bad example intended)?
Here are a few based on a quick search (until I get back to finding the best in class):
- There are also community based resources, where humans can comment on your writing such as http://www.reviewfuse.com/
- A collection of some the favorites are http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/writing-reader-friendly-check-8-readability-testing-web-tools/
In fact, the readability of a website is important enough that Google will allow you to control what sites you see in the results based on reading level in their advanced search options: http://www.google.com/advanced_search
Improved readability will also improve your site traffic in other ways – happier readers will recommend your site more often. Easy to read writing allows your content to be shared with a wider audience. Those that can understand more complex writing can still understand your simpler text, and those that don’t have 10 years of reading Shakespeare will also be included. It also makes it easier for all to read and digest quickly. Just because a lawyer can read complex writing in statutes does not mean he or she prefers to read tangled prose to learn about your ideas.
So simplify your writing and widen your audience.
If you don’t believe that readability can help your site, do a little test and then let me know the results in the comments section.