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On June 11, IBM launched a revamped Web presence, trying to improve the navigation and personalization of what is sometimes viewed as an opaque, 3 million page site.
The new IBM.com site appears simpler and cleaner to look at, and to a user, it's soon obvious there's more navigational assistance under the hood. Doing a mouse rollover of the three main topics shown on the home page brings each one into the dominant window rather than clicking through three pages.
What IBM does with its Web site is heeded by other companies. It's pioneered several fundamental user navigation techniques and it ranked number seven worldwide on the FT Bowen Craggs Index of Web sites. Bowen Craggs & Co. is a Web site consulting company in London, which released its first site ranking in May. Only IBM and General Electric of U.S.-based companies made it into its top ten, with GE ranking tenth. The list was otherwise dominated by European companies.
In May, the Compass Intelligence report, a market access consulting company, ranked Web sites by ease of use for small and medium-sized businesses. IBM led that list, followed by Microsoft, second; Salesforce.com, fifth; HP, sixth, and Dell, seventh.
In a recent interview, Lee Dierdorff, IBM's vice president of global Web strategy, said ease of user site navigation and interaction are key to IBM's future; 11% of IBM's revenue is now generated on the Web site and that number is expected to grow.
"The whole Web environment is going through a fundamental redesign," said Dierdorff. "It's no longer inside out, how do I tell my story to the outside world? Now it's outside in," he said, meaning how do outsiders find and get what they want as they come to company's home site.
IBM is using reversed domain name service look up, attempting to determine where its visitors come from and who they work for, such as a domain with the automaker, Ford, in it. IBM wants to discern what it can about its visitors in order to guess at why they are on the site and what information they're going to be looking for.
In a more structured sense, IBM offers visitors the chance to register and sign on at the top of the home page, establishing identity as soon as they arrive. That registration then amounts to a single sign-on and grants them appropriate access privileges across IBM's 3 million pages. Only seven percent of IBM's customers have registered so far "but now that registration is on the home page, we hope to have more. It's a tremendous opportunity to connect."
For a registered visitor from Ford.com, for example, "We know automotive content may be relevant to you. Once you come in, we know the pages you've visited and have the means of knowing something about you." A visitor profile is built up for registered users.
Knowing that the visitor from a small business is "a finance guy helps me [IBM] talk to you," Dierdorff said. If the visitor goes to what's known as the Red Book technical support library, that title is added to their profile as a resource they are likely to want to consult again. "We don't want to force them to fill out a three-page form to have a profile with us," he said. Instead, the site is building it dynamically, based on site visits.
Behind these user recognition devices lie Ajax-based services. The site in its right hand column typically shows three or more topics of general interest to visitors called "spots," consisting of a graphic with a text teaser. Once you're recognized, an Ajax function consults your profile and pulls out a spot that is appropriate to your interests.
On the other hand, in the left hand column a list of related links will appear unsummoned as possible reference links, based on where you've gone on the site. If you show interest in IBM's x Series hardware, the left hand column might display storage subsystems that work with it.
IBM is toying with the possibility of letting the user define what links he'd like populated in that left-hand column. And it's thinking of adding services at the bottom of the page, such as email this page to an address, print this page, or send it to a wiki, blog or RSS feed.
What used to be proprietary content, such as technical support Red Books, is now "increasingly outbound. Customers are no longer willing to come to my sandbox to play. They want it in their own sandbox," said Dierdorff.
Dierdorff is experimenting with a three-dimensional virtual business center in second life. His avatar there is named, Dylan Young, and other IBM employees have volunteered time staffing the business center with their own avatars. They issue responses in near real time to visitors as questions arise.
It's too soon to say whether sales and service will one day occur in a three-dimensional, virtual environment but Dierdorff finds the prospect intriguing. "There's a lot to be learned from the three-dimensional game environment... It allows alternative engagements and delivery platforms. We're going to check it out," he said. At the Second Life business center, visitors may enter an IBM technical support library, pull a Red Book off the shelf and flip through pages.