Extreme Makeover 2

If your Web site has a 2001 style, it's time for a new look. Here's what five companies are doing to improve their sites.

Tony Kontzer, Contributor

November 18, 2005

5 Min Read

Budget Rent A Car: One Crash Too Many
When Cendant Corp. purchased Budget Rent A Car System Inc. in 2002, it inherited a Web site built to support 3,000 online rental-car reservations a day that was struggling to handle triple that volume. Frequent downtime was costing Cendant $2 million a year in lost reservation revenue, estimates John Peebles, VP of online marketing for Cendant Car Rental Group.

Cendant earlier this year established a single Web architecture to support both its Budget and Avis sites, as well as the company's direct connections into travel agencies. It standardized on common databases and BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic app servers. The car-rental sites and partner connections are collectively managed out of a data center run by IBM in Boulder, Colo.

The infrastructure improvements are paying off for Budget.com. Site crashes no longer stop customers in their tracks. The new site hasn't had any unscheduled outages since it launched in April, translating into at least $1 million in business that Peebles estimates Budget wouldn't have gotten if the site still had that problem with downtime.

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But the work wasn't complete in April. In the weeks after the new Budget.com launched, inadequacies popped up with the site's search engine: Customers had difficulty finding an airport rental location if they didn't know the airport's three-letter code, and if they didn't have the correct spelling of a city or street, forget it--the site couldn't handle misspellings. That led to what Cendant says will be a huge improvement to Budget.com: deployment of natural-language search technology from InQuira Inc. that generates results based on common English questions rather than keywords.

But it's requiring considerable work to make the site compatible with that approach. Much of the content, Peebles says, has to be rewritten to provide answers to hypothetical questions, such as, "What time does your location at Logan International Airport close?" Still, it's impossible to anticipate every question, so Budget plans to have an employee monitor the search queries and responses and create additional questions that will be recognized by the software. The new feature is set to go live next February.

Cendant sees an opportunity for the software to help generate sales. For instance, after providing hours for the Logan location, the site might follow up with a message asking what time the customer's flight arrives and then lead her into the online-reservation process. "Search can reduce phone calls to customer service and cut costs, but our long-range goal is to drive revenue," Peebles says.

Meanwhile, Cendant anticipates that consolidating its Web infrastructure will help when it integrates Budget.com and Avis.com into a service-oriented architecture project it calls Omega, or One Merged Enterprise Global Architecture. The goal is to build services based on application tasks, making it easy for Web-site developers to sew new customer services selected from a central repository into the Budget and Avis sites, instead of developing each site separately. "We will leverage the services available in the repository and, I suspect, create new services as well," says John Turato, the car-rental group's VP of technology.

Newegg: Feeding Customers Prices
In reaching its level of E-commerce success, Newegg.com has built a reputation for aggressive price competition. The site is expected to have revenue of $1.3 billion this year, after just four years in business as an online computer retailer. But the latest site redesign brought in a level of price transparency that's daring, even for Newegg.

With the relaunch of Newegg.com earlier this year, the company took a number of steps--such as beefing up its personalization capabilities and simplifying site navigation--with the goal of capturing a larger share of customers' computer-equipment spending. It also has taken a particularly unusual step in E-retailing by introducing Really Simple Syndication feeds for customers who want to be updated constantly on pricing changes, an important feature for a site that has built a reputation for aggressive discount pricing. "Buyers for corporations can benefit from not having to browse for updated pricing," VP of marketing Howard Tong says. "On the negative side, it also makes it easier for the competition to stay on top of what we're doing. But we were willing to make that sacrifice."

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Newegg delivers pricing feeds to four RSS readers: FeedDemon, NewsGator (which in May acquired Bradbury Software, maker of FeedDemon), FeedReader, and Pluck. The company hasn't measured the impact of the feeds; it doesn't know how many people have added its feed to their readers or whether the feeds are leading directly to additional sales. But Newegg has gotten dozens of E-mails from pleased customers since the feeds were introduced, Tong says.

The biggest challenges are determining products for which it's worth setting up RSS updates (there were 46 updated feeds on a recent afternoon) and educating customers on how to use RSS, Tong says. Newegg's instructions are limited to a paragraph in a help section of the site.

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