So our redesigned site went up on Friday. It’s not exactly where we want it just yet but it’s close. It was a rather hellish experience, as we didn’t just change a style sheet or template. We really redesigned how we made our Web site and even what we made it out of.
Our previous site was something I inherited. Back in the early days of the Internets, the University didn’t really want its .edu domain sullied with the taint of filthy commerce. Money changers in the temple, and all. Such a sophisticated and expensive connection of machines should be reserved only for research purposes. So, they asked us to please build our little bookselling site somewhere else. We complied by getting ourselves a .org and hiring a bunch of consultants who built a meh, decent enough shopping cart, and a rather gaudy site for us to promote our fine bound wares of the scholarly persuasion. And it sufficed for the mid-nineties, but we’ve used the same basic site until last Friday. It’s a little better now.
Under the hood one of the most interesting things is that it’s written in xhtml. Which seems to be sort of the gateway drug from html to the semantic Web. We built our own shopping cart, and by we I mean our IT manager Ed did, for the most part. All of the actual payment processing is handed off to and handled by University systems. My how far they’ve come. From no commerce on our sacred network to, you really should let us handle your credit cards. No really, we insist.
The actual book pages are now created by a database. They aren’t dynamic pages, but static pages that are automatically uploaded either weekly, or as desired. If only a single page or two needs to be updated, the running of a script builds the new page(s) and puts it(them) on the site. This is a huge improvement over the “hand crafted” pages we used to have. Now rather than constantly changing individual pages, it all happens automatically, when a status, price, or season changes. Or if we notice a typo in the copy. Boom, site gets updated.
We also greatly increased the volume of pages on our site, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to share an interesting geeky stat on the site. The number of books listed on the site went from the approximately 1,200 active titles in our inventory to the almost 2,000 we’ve published in our fifty year history. Almost everything we’ve ever published is now on our site. So here’s the geeky stat; after almost doubling the number of book pages, we actually cut the size of the site by seventy megabytes. It is amazing what clean design can do. The site is also significantly more accessible. So, I am pleased.
Some of the services in the site include Google’s free Custom Search on the entire site. It’s a new Ajax version and I really like how it looks, and that it can be used on any page without leaving the page.
And we also became members of Amazon’s Associates program. So every page gives the user the option of adding one of our books to their Amazon cart. I realize this is a rather controversial choice. Before coming to the press I had a bookstore that closed because of the consolidation of book distribution. I’m familiar with the debate. But I also know what my site users are doing. When they find one of our books on our site they are going to Amazon to buy it. How do I know this? We get 20,000 visitors to our site on an average week, yet on any given day we only sell on average 10 books. On the other hand, our number two customer is Amazon, and for many university presses, they’re becoming their number one customer. By being a member of Amazon’s Associates program I now get a cut of every sale I’ve referred there. This can mean a modest, yet significant revenue stream. And the most appealing thing about this for me is that now that we list even the books we no longer have in print, a user who finds a used copy on Amazon, referred by us, benefits us with his purchase of that used copy. Here are some preliminary numbers. First quarter of this year we experimented with the Amazon Associates program with about 75 books on the old version of our site. From those 75 links we made $100 in the first quarter. We now have 2,000 links. Even if they only earn $1,500 a quarter, that’s free money to us. Not only does it serve our users, it also effectively cuts Amazon’s margin. Now at least 4% of every referred sale through Amazon comes back to us.
Perhaps as karmic debt we also include a “Find in a Library” link on every page. This allows the user to run our title through OCLC’s WorldCat to see if there’s a library copy near them. Again, a controversial choice, though mostly among my fellow marketeers. Why would you point out a library copy when you’re trying to close sale, they might ask. My thinking is that not only does it help us achieve our institutional mission’s goal of dissemination, it might also occasionally point out a hole in a library's collection. And as a division of our University’s library, I like to think it also appeases our Librarian Overlords.
We’re continuing our Just a Taste sample chapter program, but we’re currently expanding it and hope to include most new titles we publish. And we’ll soon be adding a service from the CCC allowing folks to license content from the site, right from the book page.
We also have a blog, but I suppose if you’re reading this you already know that.
Books in the Google Book Search program can be text searched from our site. But that was true of the old site so I suppose that’s not really new.
I guess that’s about it. Except the color, I suppose. Yeah, it’s different. Truth is, it’s a bit of legacy issue. That was the color of the center text body section of the old site, and in developing the new site, it just seemed easier to keep that color for the transition. It’s odd, I know. But it has kind of grown on me. If our production manager/art director ever gets a second I’ll work with her to change the style sheet. In the meantime, it’s better than all that 2.0 white stuff currently popular on the Web, in a silly putty kind of way. I wonder what happens if you take one of our pages and press it into a comic?