Centreline 2000's jam-packed Web site has a lot of information about the company, its core consultancy activity (Unix/ Uniplex to Windows 95/NT migration), and its key customer bases (local government, professional organisations and small to medium-sized businesses).
It is a site primarily concerned with words - graphics hardly figure - but behind that obsession is a keen awareness of how people use the Web. They go to search sites like Alta Vista, Lycos and Yahoo, and they search on keywords. In this case, the words Uniplex, NT, UK, local government, Web Manage, Worcester - or combinations thereof - should direct them to this site.
So important is the power of keyword searching that the company has made the site less revolutionary than it was when first set up. In its earliest manifestation, www.C2000.com was a build-on-demand site that responded to the type of browser used to access it. If it was a text browser, a text-only version of the site was sent back; Navigator got a full graphics/ text version; Mosaic, a version with less complex graphics; and so on.
But there was a downside to this, according to Centreline 2000 sales and marketing director Stuart Hillston. None of the search engines on the Web were picking up the keywords. They send out bots - robotic software devices - to gather content information from sites, rather then using browsers.
'We weren't appearing on all the main search engines, which really defeated the whole purpose of the site,' he says.
'It's important to make sure that people can find you easily on the Web.
I used Alta Vista the other day to try to find the Marks & Spencer site, but it couldn't find it with those search words. If I'd searched on the key words UK and retail, I'd have found it. But who's going to go to that kind of trouble? You must be easy to find.'
Once you've got people in, though, the thing is to inform them or entertain them sufficiently to make them want to dig deeper into your site and then to return to it. 'The idea is that we become a focus point for useful materials for our user base, and as they pass through we catch them and sell them something gently,' says Centreline 2000 MD and chief Web master Simon Walden. 'We want to appear skilled and knowledgeable first, and a sales company second.'
The company's Web skills are relatively transparent at first sight. There are few flashy gimmicks - no Java, frames, vast plug-in files and so on - that please many Web masters and infuriate many Web users with limited bandwidth. In fact, the home screen setup is clean and simple: a boxed-out declaration of the firm's main areas of expertise and a straightforward two-column index of linked files on the site.
Navigability of the site is made easier by having this overall design repeated throughout the files on the site. At the top of each page are four buttons: home, products, feedback and site map, so users simply can't get lost. The only curiosity here is that the site map refers to documents that are not referenced on the home screen index. Hillston says this is because some documents were added before the home screen's HTML code was updated.
But one suspects that some of the more lighthearted material that you can find on the site map - technical director Hart in bikers' leathers and the notorious 'X Files cast in bed' shots - is never going to find its way on to the site's home page. That material is informal stuff, probably there to add spice to Centreline 2000 sales demos, and the site map provides easy access to it.
Not all the fun material is screened from general view in this way, though.
There's a whole lot of gameplay tips for games like Duke Nukem 3D, Doom and Fury 3 available from the home screen, as well as hotlinks to other interesting sites and Web resources. All of these are designed to make the user bookmark the site and use it for further reference.
None of these areas deploy particularly powerful Web techniques, but if you dig deep into the information about the company's products you discover a few interesting tricks. Centreline 2000 has designed a Web product called Web Manage, for instance, which is partly a scripting program that inserts HTML tags into standard Uniplex documents.
'That's a key thing for our local government users,' says Hillston, 'which have to publish things like the minutes of all their meetings and make them available to the public through local libraries and so on. We've done this on the Hart Council site, and the minutes can now be accessed by libraries or individuals.'
The program is also a general Web management package, something along the lines of Microsoft Front Page. 'Web Manage is essentially a labour-saving device that helps users manage a Web site and keep it up-to-date more efficiently,' says Hillston. 'Anything that reduces management time reduces the cost, and that's what sells it.'
On the Centreline 2000 site, information about Web Manage is presented very much like a Powerpoint slide show. By using HTML's meta refresh commands, the page is updated after a set length of time. A thin vertical background Gif file, when displayed repetitively across the screen, also gives the impression of background colour gradients. A clever touch.
Other tools we came across included CGI scripts used in the Feedback section to automatically add comments to the visitors book and to create form messages for further product information to be sent by post. Hillston recognised that these facilities are now available as Web bots in Microsoft's Front Page Web management package, but they need the host ISP to support the Web bot extensions. 'Not all do,' he says.
'Our ISP will in the future. But we've got solutions that don't need Front Page.'
Although it seems like an integrated self-contained site on an internal server, the Centreline 2000 site is in fact hosted by a business specialist ISP in London called Netlink. But Centreline 2000 uses Demon's mail service, which offers a mail redirection facility, so that its users all have email addresses with @C2000.com suffixes, rather than @C2000.demon.
co.uk. 'It is all integrated and seems as if we've heavily invested in our own server,' says Hillston. 'This way we offer our customers high levels of performance at a much lower cost.'
The site has links to six of its clients' sites, ranging from the single page calling-card site of Dalgety Produce Limited (a local potato producer) through to the vast Hart District Council site. Several of these sites are based around pages of product information with email forms attached, enabling a request for further information to be sent to an email address for the client company. Those clients don't need a full ISP account, just a low-cost Internet connection for picking up email.
The smaller sites also tend to be based around static information and, therefore, low-cost to their clients in terms of maintenance - more of a service and Web evangelicism undertaking for these businesses, than a serious money-generating activity. 'We don't recover our costs on these, but then again they're never going to make cool site of the day either,' says Hillston. But these sites are useful in providing a little value-add to customers that already take other Centreline 2000 services and products, or may do so one day.
The real Web management and upkeep money comes with the big sites. The two key ones are the local government sites for Hart District Council and a general information site called Worcester on the Web. Centreline 2000 was already working with Hart DC's IT department when it suggested they use the Web Manage software to set up a site. Cost of maintenance of the site was initially the main concern of the council. But now the council has dipped its toes in the water, its IT strategy officer is contemplating ways to use the Web for feedback from local service users, as well as simply publishing information about services and the minutes of meetings.
Although Centreline 2000 has been successful in getting Hart DC to think about the Web's possibilities, it doesn't necessarily think the sector is ripe for a killing just yet. Hillston says: 'Local government is an ideal customer for Web services, because they have so much information they need to make available to the public. But they do tend to be slow at migration, and they are constrained by budgets. A lot of them just don't have the resources at the moment.'
But other professional bodies are keen to migrate and have the money to do it. Centreline 2000 has just announced two major contracts: a u400,000 supply deal for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and a u150,000 contract with the Chartered Institute of Taxation. The former involves migrating 200 users from a Unix system to an NT based network of Windows 95 desktop PCs. The latter involves migration from Uniplex systems to a Backoffice/Windows 95 environment.
The core Uniplex-busting activity of the company is hammered home in the information section of the Web site. Here you can find white papers explaining what the Microsoft range includes, and why people are moving from Unix to NT. These papers don't even attempt to appear unbiased - they are the sales propaganda. But IT managers, especially those with Uniplex systems, want to read them to get the Centreline 2000 perspective.
The white papers pull no punches. 'Time and again we talk to users that are unhappy with the way their Unix or Uniplex installation is developing - or more frequently not developing,' begins a paper on NT's ascendancy.
'This manifests itself in many forms, from a general lack of confidence in future development of the applications, to frustration at the difficulties they have in maintaining their custom developments.' Sentiments such as these won't endear Centreline 2000 to Uniplex, but these are the things that disgruntled Uniplex customers will want to hear. Tell it like it is, win the sale.
That, after all, is the name of the game: winning over the minds and hearts of potential customers. 'Traffic is important to us,' says Hillston.
'We aim to get as much traffic through as possible. To do that you have to provide something valuable, and the information in reports or the hotlinks to other sites are valuable for many (Uniplex) users.
'They start to get to know us, who we are, what we offer and so on through the site. That's where the potential sales relationship begins.'
What better justification could a Web site need?
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