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Watching the World Wide Web

Two Long Years on the Web

The concept of Web time can have a strong effect on administering a rapidly growing Web site.

By Jordan Gold

We at Macmillan Online began working on our Web site just over two years ago and went live in January 1995. This makes us part of the first wave of corporate Web sites, which is both good and bad. The good news is we have a lot of experience online as a result of two years of dealing with the public via the Internet. The bad news is we've created a monster, in the form of a Web site with more than 100,000 pages, developed by many different developers, with some code that is over two years old.

The formula I use for the Internet world is that it's changing so fast that one month of calendar time equals one year on the Internet. Two years ago, Mosaic was the number one Web browser; Microsoft was only rumored to be thinking of creating an online service; and America Online (AOL) was growing fast enough to have reached two million members but still lagged behind CompuServe for dominance of commercial online services.

Now Netscape Navigator is the top browser, but it is being challenged by Internet Explorer; Microsoft has pretty much abandoned its original approach with the Microsoft Network; and AOL has tripled in size, way ahead of CompuServe, Prodigy and the other online services.

Warp Speed

My point is that the online world is changing so fast that the two-year-old code on our site is effectively 24 "years" old in Internet terms. As I mentioned last time, this causes our site to run slower than we would like. This is equivalent to a problem that the U.S. had in competing with Germany and Japan in manufacturing operations after World War II. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Germany and Japan built new factories to replace the ones destroyed during the war; we kept the ones that we had, since they had suffered no damage. Germany and Japan soon enjoyed a competitive advantage over the U.S., because their newer facilities could employ more modern manufacturing techniques, often at lower cost.

In some ways, our Web site is the equivalent of a pre-World War II U.S. factory in the early '50s. It uses older server software, an out-of-date search engine and a variety of code from a number of developers, both in-house and outside. Newer sites, designed using more efficient programming techniques and designed to work with newer server software, have the opportunity to run much faster than ours. As I write this, we're in the process of rewriting much of the code in our site to make it more efficient and consistent. We're also migrating to a newer search engine. Luckily, this is much easier to do than building new factories. The end result of our redesign will be a faster, more efficient site.

Despite some inefficiencies in server performance, we've been able to consistently attract more users to our site. As a result, we've had two years of constantly growing traffic. While it's too early to analyze any growth trends, we noticed major spurts in the summers of 1995 and 1996; in each year, traffic increased by 20 percent or more per month. Last year, that brought us to 100,000 hits and 15,000 unique addresses per day by September. By September of this year, we were averaging 600,000 hits and 35,000 unique addresses per day. We also had introduced features on our site that took advantage of the latest technology such as RealAudio (daily updates from the Simpson civil trial and a weekly baseball report) and Netscape 3 extensions (showing reindeer flying, to promote a Christmas gift book, Flight of the Reindeer).

SysAdmin Headaches

Increased traffic has meant adding hardware and a much more complicated systems administration plan. Our site used to run just fine on a Sun Sparc 20 using public domain server software. We now need multiple Sparc 2000s and two Sparc 20s, one for live Web access and the other for development purposes. We also need multiple T-1 lines for users to access our site. Plus, our disaster recovery and backup plans are voluminous; they used to be only a few pages each. Our site has become much more important to our core business, so we can't afford to go down for long. At the same time, because the site is more complicated, there are many more potential disasters to recover from and many more areas to back up.

We also need more people to administer our system. Where one person used to be enough, we now have several and have trained others to step in should they be needed. This gives us flexibility and "bench strength," which helps make our site more reliable.

More pages and traffic mean more people on staff overall. We used to have a few people on staff for development, system administration and marketing purposes. We now have a lot more, especially for development. Not only do we have people developing new features on our site, we also have staff just for maintaining the site, keeping it up-to-date and constantly changing its content. We want it to be apparent when people come to our site that it has changed since the last time they visited, even if they just visited us yesterday. It takes people to do this.

We've encountered many challenges over our first two years of Web activity. But we've also enjoyed many benefits, including increased communications with our customers, a better understanding of what our customers want and increased knowledge about our core subject areas. We consider our site successful, particularly as a way of promoting our products online. The next two years could be even more challenging, but the potential benefits will increase, too.

Jordan Gold is vice president and publisher of Macmillan Online USA, a division of Simon and Schuster/ Viacom in Indianapolis. He can be reached at jgold@mcp.com. The Web site is http://www. superlibrary.com.