How not to frustrate Web buyers

Companies selling goods over the Internet sometimes have poorly-constructed Web sites, and AJAX-based tools are often the solution, according to one industry analyst.

In a recent report, dubbed “Nine Web 2.0 Tools That Help Boost Sales,” Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. recommends Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) because it lets users update parts of the page (during checkout, for example) without going to a whole new page. AJAX, which is used to create interactive Web pages, also helps solve a common problem: Web commerce sites that have content that cannot be read by users’ out-of-date browsers.

“The consumer client is always a challenge because not everyone is well versed in keeping their browser up to date,” said Gene Alvarez, research vice-president at Gartner.

“One reason I favour AJAX is its non-plug-in based approach,” meaning consumers do not have to download and install add-ons to their browsers. “It takes some of the burden off of the consumer.”

But despite the availability of advanced Web 2.0 electronic commerce technologies, Gartner says many companies still use older software that requires users to constantly refresh screens, go through several steps to check out and purchase their products and enter their personal data more than once.

“Organizations need to keep in mind the Web has become the primary face of the organization,” Alvarez said. “Their first impression is when they go to Google, type in a name and they wind up at your Web site.”

Using AJAX, companies can write single-page applications that let buyers checkout on one Web page, program sites to fill in forms automatically, update price totals without requiring a page to refresh and let users see product details by moving a mouse over an item on a screen.

Without these capabilities, companies risk losing customers because it’s simply too difficult to buy the products online, Alvarez said. “Some sites don’t even have comparison tools to put them side by side,” he said, adding Best Buy’s Web commerce site has a good comparison tool.

Other sites lack good search capabilities that let users find specific products, he added.

Some of the capabilities of AJAX include the ability to make mashups, which let companies combine store locators or maps with their e-commerce sites, Alvarez said.

One example is, which lets users search for homes for sale in Canada and the U.S. and narrow their queries by criteria such as price range and location. It includes a button that supposedly allows users to superimpose locations on a map. However, a ComputerWorld Canada reporter who tested on Monday to search for home in Toronto selling for less than $300,000 clicked on the map only to get the following error message: “We’re sorry but we cannot list the mappings on the page. Please try another page or modify your search criteria.”

Alvarez said some Web commerce sites are custom-built, though Gartner is “seeing an uptake” in companies purchasing software licenses or software as a service.

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