Eyes Data-Sharing Service

October 4, 2007

By James Niccolai, IDG News Service Inc. is preparing a new service that will allow customers to share sales leads and other data directly with other companies that use its on-demand CRM (customer relationship management) software. is asking customers to help it choose a name for the service, candidates for which include Salesforce Data Network, Salesforce to Salesforce (S2S) and Salesforce Partner Network, according to a posting in its blog Tuesday.

The service takes advantage of the fact that hosts sales and customer data for thousands of clients in a common format in its servers, making it relatively easy for it to share information among those who wish to do so. started soliciting feedback from customers earlier this year on the idea of a “Lockbox” that would allow manufacturing companies, for example, to share sales leads with their distributors and resellers, and get real-time updates on those leads, from within the system.

Customers will be able to set up rules that allow them to publish the records they want to share, which other customers could then subscribe to, according to a February posting on the company’s IdeaExchange Web site.

The new service was being planned for the Winter 2008 release, according to the posting. The Winter 2007 release came out in January this year, and the fact that the company is soliciting a name for the service now suggests it could be close to fruition.

Woodson Martin,’s vice president of marketing for Europe, said the customers often ask how they can take better advantage of the company’s CRM service if their distributors and resellers are also customers. “They are asking, If we both have, why can’t we talk to each other so we can better share and coordinate? That’s the inspiration for this service.”

Nicholas Carr, author of the book “Does IT Matter?”, said such a service could represent an untapped opportunity for companies using hosted applications.

“Clearly, the company has something cooking, and I think it points to an as yet under-appreciated advantage of the multitenant systems that Salesforce and other utility-computing firms are running: the ability for companies using the systems to easily exchange data with one another,” he wrote in a blog posting Wednesday.

Companies offering hosted business applications, which also include NetSuite Inc. and Oracle Corp., don’t usually emphasize their ability to share their customers’ data, perhaps because one of the main inhibitors to hosted applications has been concerns about data security. But with hosted applications more widely accepted today, may think the time is right to offer the capability.

The new service would allow customers to share “leads, opportunities and custom objects with each other (assuming both are using,” the company said in its posting.

“If Salesforce’s blog post is any indication, the company is likely prepping a set of tools that will build cross-client data sharing into its applications — in a way that goes well beyond its current ‘partner relationship management’ add-ons,” Carr wrote. already allows customers to buy partner licenses for sharing data with other companies in their supply chain. The new service broadens that from a “one to many” to a “many to many” sharing model, said David Bradshaw, a principal analyst with Ovum Ltd.

Difficulties arise when customers want to share data with companies using a different software system, such as Oracle’s Siebel CRM On Demand, Bradshaw said. may hope the data-sharing service will compel more companies to sign up for its service, or it could act more openly and allow other CRM systems to take part in the data sharing, he said.

Martin said the service is made possible in part by “the growing use of our service across huge swaths of the market.” The company has about 900,000 customers, he said. “We don’t see any one else with that type of advantage today in the market.”


Make Your Web Site Pay: Google AdSense

September 17, 2007

By Richard Morochove

If you run a popular, information-rich Web site or blog, you can earn money from the growing online advertising market. You don’t even need to approach advertisers. Simply run pay-per-click ads provided by search engines such as Google and Yahoo on your Web site. You’ll earn money every time a visitor clicks on an ad.

If you use the Google search engine, you’ve probably noticed the text ads that run along the right-hand side and sometimes across the top of your search results. These are placed by advertisers who participate in the Google AdWords pay-per-click program. Google AdSense lets you earn a share of that money by running those ads on your site. There’s no guarantee that you’ll actually attract clicks and get paid, but it costs nothing to sign up and try it out.

PPC vs. Affiliate Marketing

AdSense is a pay-per-click service, not an affiliate marketing network. While both PPC ads and affiliate marketing networks allow you to earn money from your Web site, there are some significant differences in how they work.

Affiliates typically earn money only when a visitor referred from their site purchases the advertiser’s product. (I discussed affiliate marketing in an August column.) But Web publishers can earn money from PPC ads when a visitor simply clicks on an ad. No purchase is necessary.

To maximize affiliate earnings, you must carefully match the interests of your site’s visitors with the products and services that you advertise. That can be relatively easy if you manage a tightly focused site. But if your site discusses different topics on different pages, it can be time-consuming to find the most appropriate products to advertise for each topic.

AdSense automates that content-product matching process. Google crawls your site to examine your pages, using content analysis technology to find appropriate ads. The technology is similar to that used by Google’s search engine. Most of the time, the process works well and serves up relevant ads.

AdSense Basics

To use AdSense, you start by signing up for an account at no cost. You then insert Google-supplied advertising code into your Web pages.

AdSense supports a number of ad formats that should suit virtually any page layout in your Web site or blog. You can adjust the color of the text and background, if you like. In addition, you can run up to three ad units per page.

Initially, you may see public service announcements displayed on your site. These PSAs earn no click-through money. Google says that in most cases relevant ads will display within 72 hours.

AdSense Limitations

The automatic ad matching process doesn’t always work as smoothly as one would like. When I first put AdSense on one site a couple of years ago, the ads it served were rather generic. This resulted in a low click-through rate and poor earnings. I decided to position the ads closer to the site content. Almost immediately, I noticed that the ads changed, becoming more relevant, and my earnings soared.

Google won’t accept every Web site. It won’t, for example, place ads on sites with pornographic, gambling, and other controversial content.

Earning Money From AdSense

The amount of money that you earn from AdSense depends upon several factors, including the number of visitors to your Web site or blog and the nature of your content. Some content is more popular with advertisers, who will pay more for ad clicks. Google doesn’t disclose how it splits the money it earns from advertisers with the publishers on AdSense. Google accumulates your monthly earnings and pays out after the balance exceeds $100.

I’m generally pleased with my earnings from AdSense. However, I know other Web publishers who don’t believe it was worth the effort needed to enter the ad code. You risk only the investment of your time, however, so I recommend trying out AdSense to see if it earns money for you.

Source’s New Small-Business Service

August 23, 2007

By Richard Morochove

If your e-commerce site is an important source of customer leads, a new service could be just what you need to streamline the work of turning a new lead into a new customer.

Salesforce Group Edition is the successor to the company’s Team Edition customer relationship management service. The major enhancement is its tight integration with the Google AdWords pay-per-click (PPC) advertising service. The integration with AdWords is the best I’ve seen, as it allows you to easily determine which search engine advertising keywords deliver the most new customers and added revenues to your business. You will need to make a few modifications to your Web site to take advantage of this feature, however.

Complete AdWords Integration

A PPC ad service can drive more visitors to your Web site. You write text ads that display next to the results for specific terms, or keywords, that people enter in search engines. You pay for each visitor who clicks on your ad and is then redirected to your Web site. (Read more about AdWords at “Search-Engine Ads“.)

The ability to track the trail of PPC ad clicks, from the initial site visit to the sales lead and ultimately to a sale, is not new. Generally you can see this information in several places: your AdWords account, your Web server logs, and a CRM application.

The elegance of Salesforce Group Edition lies in the way it seamlessly assembles the data from all of these sources in one place so that viewing and analyzing the results of your PPC ads is easier. You can readily see which keywords bring you the biggest bang for your advertising buck. Since the lead-source information updates every 15 minutes, you can track results almost as they happen.

Tracking Leads From Other Sources

Unfortunately, Salesforce Group Edition isn’t integrated in the same way with other PPC ad services, such as Microsoft adCenter and Yahoo Search Marketing; though you certainly can use Salesforce Group Edition with these services, the reports aren’t as complete. However, you can also employ the service to track other leads, such as telephone inquiries, e-mail, trade shows, and referrals from other Web sites.


Mailbag: Web-Based Appointment Scheduling

August 5, 2007

By Richard Morochove

This month I answer a reader’s question about Web-based scheduling services.

I am a social worker in a group private counseling practice. We track our billing using software that has a scheduling module built in, but we’ve never used it. It seems too clumsy, too difficult to customize around the personal schedules of nine therapists. We’ve stayed with paper appointment books. This works but is cumbersome, especially when someone calls in and asks, “When is my next appointment?” or when you have to flip through nine books to find the first opening someone has for an urgent caller.

Is there an intelligent way to evaluate appointment software, short of downloading trial versions for installation? We have been told the wave of the future is online, Web-based scheduling services that allow a prospective client to book an appointment at any time without a phone conversation.
–Terry Moore, Omaha, Nebraska

There are many different appointment scheduling applications, and there’s no easy way to evaluate their suitability for a given situation without using trial versions, as available.

Start by analyzing your business needs, as I outlined in an earlier column. That article was about choosing accounting software, but the same principles apply in your circumstances: First analyze your needs, then rate the capabilities of each application in that context.

Stand-Alone or Integrated?

The appointment schedulers I’ve seen built into financial management or billing applications never seem to be quite as good as the stand-alone programs. Of course, the downside of using a stand-alone appointment scheduler is the lack of integration with your billing app.

Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Web-based business application services. They tend to be easier to set up than packaged applications that you install on your own PC, and they usually handle software updates and data backups automatically.

Web-based apps are also more likely to offer online self-service. Customers can access certain capabilities over the Internet, if you permit it.

Benefits of Client Self-Service

Allowing your clients to book their own appointments online delivers several benefits. It can increase client satisfaction since it lets them easily schedule an appointment based upon their top priority, whether that’s the earliest possible booking, the most convenient time, or seeing their favorite therapist. Clients can also cancel appointments or change times.

A Web-based service is available for your clients to use 24 hours a day since it does not depend upon someone answering your phone during business hours. This also relieves your staff of some tedious scheduling-related tasks.

You’ll still need someone to answer the phone to schedule appointments: Not every client will have Internet access, and some will not feel comfortable booking appointments online.

AppointmentQuest Web-based Scheduling Service

AppointmentQuest Online Appointment Manager is a highly capable Web-based appointment scheduler with client self-service capabilities. It offers six membership packages with varying features and capacities, priced at $7 per month and up.

You can try out AppointmentQuest by signing up for a free 30-day trial account. I found the application process easy, but setup proved time-consuming and somewhat problematic.

You must go through a multistep procedure to configure schedules, add personnel and locations, and more. I got lost somewhere in New Account Setup and couldn’t figure out how to resume the setup process.

I wound up stuck in Suspended Schedule Status. I knew–and the online help confirmed–that customers can book appointments only when the schedule status is Active. However, the online help did not explain how to change the status to Active. Online help that tells you what you already know isn’t very helpful.

I finally used a Web-based form to query support and was pleasantly surprised when, despite the stated 48-hour turnaround, I received a detailed e-mail response within a few minutes. I was then able to complete the setup.

Highly Customizable

Despite the setup glitch, I’m impressed by AppointmentQuest. It offers a wealth of scheduling capabilities. You can change the appointment interval, set an appointment lead-in or lead-out to add time between clients, and establish an appointment cancellation deadline. I think it would be simple to set different work hours (including split shifts), days off, and vacation days for each therapist.

You can customize the Web interface for both you and your clients, changing fonts and colors. You can add your business name, logo, and contact information. You can also modify appointment e-mail notification messages and policies for both clients and staff.

It’s easy to check availability, and you can activate the Online Appointment Scheduler for use by clients. There are several ways to link from your Web site to your appointment data, including options for both new and returning clients. The client interface is intuitive and easy to use.

Credit Card Billing

The AppointmentQuest package that appears most appropriate for your practice is Gold PRO, which handles an unlimited number of appointments for up to ten employees, for up to 24 months in advance.

E-mail appointment reminders can be sent to clients and therapists, as well as to an office administrator. Gold PRO supports both rescheduling and recurring appointments.

Appointment and contact information can be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook or the Palm Desktop. You an also export data to a spreadsheet and prepare appointment books in PDF.

You could even opt for credit-card processing, which collects fees or deposits from clients when they make appointments. That feature requires a merchant account, and AppointmentQuest charges transaction-processing fees that vary depending upon the plan you select.

The Gold PRO package costs $100 per month. Discounts apply if you agree to a six-month or one-year contract. For your group, the cost for this plan would amount to about $11 per month per therapist. This sounds pretty affordable to me, though it does cost more than a paper appointment book. You’ll need to decide if the scheduling capabilities are worth it.


Nifty Web Services

August 1, 2007

By Steve Bass

Every couple of days a new Web service pops onto the scene. Some are forgettable, but the ones I’ve got for you this week are definitely keepers.

Jott: Send Yourself a Note

Say you’re driving home or walking the dog and have a gem of an idea. (Not me, of course. I’m thinking of you.) If your mobile phone lets you, you can record the thought as a personal message. But there’s a better way.

Use your speed dial to call Jott (877/568-8486). Talk for 30 seconds and Jott turns what you say into text, then sends it to you via e-mail. Have others you’d like to send a Jott to? Just add their name and e-mail address to your Jott contact list.

Use Doodle to Coordinate a Meeting

Take 50 people and try to get them to schedule a get-together or a meeting. As my friend Monica said, when she told me about Doodle, “it can be a nightmare of e-mails, and back and forth phone calls as you try to find the perfect date and time.”

The trick, she said, is to use Doodle, a free Web-based service that lets participants vote on the best time, date, location–whatever. Try a working sample, then participate in my Doodle poll to see when’s the best time to meet at my office for a cup of java. [Thanks, Monica.]

Get Hard-to-Get Web Invites

I get more than my fair share of invitations into Web-based services; I’ve tried Joost, Pownce, and GrandCentral, for instance. Lest you miss out on the fun, I’ve found a site that might make it easier for non-journalists to get invites to new services.

InviteShare lets visitors request invitations from others who have extras. If you have invites you’re not using, you can offer them on the site. Here’s a list of the most popular invitations on the site.

Dig This: When the power went out in San Francisco last week and access to our Web site was spotty, we discovered our IT Department has a sense of humor.

Get Your Blogs in E-Mail

I’ll read a blog online only if I’m forced into it. My preference is to have the blog delivered to me via e-mail. That way I can choose to read it now or later or not at all.

Yes, I know, I’m an oddity. (Don’t rub it in.) Most people seem to use one of thousands of RSS readers–but I don’t need yet another program sitting in my system tray.

For a long time, I used The site let me configure all my RSS feeds for delivery by e-mail. One day Squeet stopped working. “Squeet will be unavailable while it is undergoing an extended maintenance period”, they said. Very extended.

Hamid Shojaee, the CEO of Axosoft, the brains behind Squeet, had a candid reply to my complaints: “After pushing it for nearly 8 months, we had VERY LITTLE interest in the product. Only 10,000 users (non-paying, of course) and the servers used for it were starting to choke because of the sheer volume. (Squeet checked over 50,000 feeds per day, most of them multiple times.) On top of that, Outlook 2007 and nearly every other email client also has RSS capabilities built-in. So we had a hard decision to make–keep investing in a system that seems to be a dead-end or refocus our efforts on other stuff.”

As I said, very extended.

I moved all my RSS feeds to Yahoo Alerts and it was terrific, for a while. Then it stopped.

Dig This: I love original, surprising videos. Here’s one about a bunch of Norwegian kids playing on a railroad track. I’m guessing you’ll watch it twice. [Thanks, Jack.]

Forwards From RssFwd

I’m on a new service now, RssFwd. It does what Squeet and Yahoo Alerts did; the big difference is that it still works.

It’s easy enough to use. Copy and paste a blog’s URL (try into the Submit field. RssFwd finds the XML content feed.

A reader recently suggested two slick sites I definitely plan to try.

“I’ve been an e-mail subscriber for years and enjoy reading your articles. You seem to have forgotten two of the major players for to RSS to e-mail. What about Feedburner‘s e-mail service or FeedBlitz? With these you can also keep track of your subscribers and more.”
–Blog Bloke

By the by, Blog Bloke has a useful site about blogging called InstaBloke.

Dig This: You hear how often Apple iPods are stolen? Yep, they’re grabbed on subways and buses, and right on the street. That’s because iPods are distinctive and easily spotted. I found a nifty way for you to protect your iPod: Hide it inside a not-likely-to-be-stolen Microsoft Zune. Visit Hide-a-Pod for details and ordering information. [Thanks, Mike D.]

Rave: A Gamer’s Look at Customer Relationship Management

June 18, 2007

By Richard Morochove

Customer relationship management can improve the way a business handles its dealings with prospects and customers. It helps a business keep the sales pipeline flowing to maintain a positive cash flow.

I’ve previously looked at 37signals’ Highrise, a simple Web-based CRM service, in an earlier column. Rave from Entellium offers a more feature-rich online CRM service than Highrise, though it’s pricier and requires more time to set up. Rave sports an interesting look and feel that’s inspired by what the company calls Gamer Influenced Design.

Rave’s lively “video game” look likely won’t appeal to the Willy Lomans in the sales force who still rely on their note-smudged index cards. Yet it could make light work of drudgery like entering contact details for younger sales staff who appreciate Rave’s bright colors and overall visual appeal. Priced at $400 per year per user, Rave offers reasonable value for a small to mid-sized business.

Rave’s Smart Client

Setting up Rave is a little more time consuming than using other online services that can be accessed using nothing more than a Web browser. In Rave’s case, you must first download and install Entellium’s proprietary client software on each PC that uses the service, then register for a Rave account.

Organizing a sales team is a little more complicated, but doesn’t require specialized IT support. Your sales manager can likely perform the customization and setup for other users in the business.

Once you log on to Rave, you’ll find plenty of online help available, including video tutorials. These aren’t structured as formal lessons, however. Rave is designed so that you can pick up tidbits of knowledge as you progress through the online application, a handy learn-as-you-go approach.

Rave makes liberal use of icons, such as star ratings for prospects, in place of text descriptions. Yet the user interface is not all play and no work. The payoff from installing Rave’s smart client becomes evident when you see how easy and time-saving it is to drag and drop information.

Online Service With Offline Option

Rave’s home page is like a dashboard that summarizes an individual’s sales activities, such as customer appointments, inbound and outbound phone calls, e-mails, tasks, and notes regarding contacts. Other main menu selections include the management of contacts, prospects, sales opportunities, activities, and reports.

Rave is designed to be used online; a broadband Internet connection is recommended for optimal performance. Entellium says its service provides 99.7 percent uptime. However, there’s also an offline mode that allows access to important data when you’re not online.

Furthermore, you are not limited to using only the data you enter while online. An import wizard steps you through the task of importing data from CSV and XML files. This can be useful for following up a list of trade show contacts, for example. You can also synchronize data with Microsoft Outlook.

Built-In Sales Activity Automation

Rave guides you through the process of turning a contact into a prospect with the aim of ultimately converting a sales opportunity to a customer. This guided process will assist most new and inexperienced sales staff, but the superfluous help may initially appear to be an albatross for the sales veteran.

Yet even the experienced salesperson can benefit from the automation of routine and repetitive tasks. Rave offers a number of built-in automation capabilities, many useful, others not so much. On one hand, you can easily schedule meetings and send e-mail newsletters to customers. On the other hand, consider the RSS Automator, which delivers newsfeeds with headlines relevant to your clients. I found most headlines irrelevant and saw the scrolling news links as more of a distraction than a selling aid. Thankfully, the RSS feed can be switched off.

Entellium plans to extend Rave’s utility by offering more integration with third-party apps and services from Google (AdWords and Maps) and Intuit (QuickBooks). I discussed Google AdWords in a previous column. Integration with AdWords can help determine which advertising keywords bring in the most customers.

Fresh Look at CRM

Rave is aimed at small to mid-sized businesses with 5 to 500 employees. Its engaging user interface offers a fresh look at CRM that will hold particular appeal to a younger sales force. Rave’s service costs $400 per year per user, though a free, limited capability, 30-day trial is available.


First Look: Ning, Nexo Let You Make a Social Network

April 13, 2007

by Edward N. Albro, PC World

Now that sites like MySpace and Facebook have popularized social networking via the Web, some people want to start their own network, away from the spam and adolescent silliness that can accompany the big sites. Ning and Nexo’s eponymous, competing services stand ready to make that happen: Both let anyone create, for free, a site for their bowling club, theater company, or other group. I liked the level of creative control in Ning more than that in Nexo.

In many ways, Ning and Nexo aren’t that different from services like Homestead, which for years have helped people create personal Web pages. Both services offer you a variety of design templates and let you point and click to add elements to the page (no need to download an application, as site creation is entirely Web-based). And both will provide you with a URL within their domain.

The difference from personal pages of a few years back is in the kinds of elements you can choose to add to your Web page. Both Ning and Nexo let you put blogs, discussion forums, and video modules on your site so visitors can interact with you–and with one another.

Make Your Site Your Way

I found both services easy to use: If you have all the materials you need (photos, logos, and such), you can easily have your site up in a half hour.

I prefer the look of Ning’s templates and the basic organization of the sites it creates. And if you know what you’re doing, Ning allows an almost infinite capability to tweak your site. Co-founded by Netscape pioneer Marc Andreessen, Ning is a tweaker’s paradise. You can easily change everything from the font used for body text to the background color of the title bar. And if you know CSS, the editing possibilities are endless. Ning has also opened the site’s source code, so programmers can build small applications to perform whatever function they need and embed them on sites. Largely spoiling the look of free Ning sites, however, are the Google text ads that take up most of one of the four columns on the page. You can remove ads from a Ning site for $20 a month.

Nexo, which was in a public beta when I tested it, doesn’t allow as much flexibility as Ning. But for now Nexo has one great advantage: No ads appear on your site. Nexo CEO Craig Jorasch says the company plans to include ads on most pages, probably in the last quarter of this year. You’ll be able to pay a nominal monthly fee to remove ads, but at the time of this writing Jorasch didn’t know what that fee would be.

In my testing, I found Nexo certainly flexible enough to satisfy the needs of most people, though it doesn’t provide all the tweaking options that Ning does. On the other hand, it does have more preprogrammed modules, from a widget that lets you show product information pulled from to an applet that lets you post a one-question poll. I don’t like the default organization of Nexo sites, though: The first page of the site shows just a boring list of the site’s pages, and visitors must click deeper to see much of the actual content.

Ning’s blog and forum creation tools are bit more sophisticated than those in Nexo. With Ning, you can thread forum posts, something you can’t do with Nexo. And the formatting of Ning’s blog entries simply makes them look a bit more substantial.

If you need a Web site that’s heavily customized, and you have the skills to make the changes, Ning is a great choice. But if all you want is a simple site, you should go with Nexo, especially while it’s ad-free.


Beta site; not rated
Service lets you easily set up a Web page with lots of widget options and no ads–for now.
Price when reviewed: Free


Highly customizable service creates attractive Web communities, but ads mar the looks.
Price when reviewed: Free ($20 per month without ads)

WebEx WebOffice: Collaboration Plus E-Mail

February 5, 2007

By Richard Morochove

WebEx’s WebOffice is a slick e-mail and collaborative online service designed to meet the needs of small businesses. While WebOffice does not deliver all the capabilities of Microsoft Office Live, it offers a sleek user interface with sophisticated collaboration capabilities.

The service appears to be designed for a more-established small business than Office Live targets, one that probably already has an online presence and is prepared to pay more to get the collaboration capabilities that it wants. WebOffice is an upgrade to services originally offered by, a company that WebEx acquired a couple of years ago. This heritage shows: WebOffice delivers a more polished user experience than that of Office Live, which only recently came out of beta test in the U.S.

E-Mail Added

WebOffice’s latest update adds e-mail capabilities to the suite, including those you would expect of any good e-mail client, such as a spelling checker. One way the service differs from free Web-based e-mail accounts aimed at individuals is that you can create public folders in order to share messages with other users or departments. WebOffice’s e-mail service also features antispam and antivirus administrative controls, which are essential these days.

WebOffice also supports contact, calendar, and task management; discussion boards; polls; expense reports; and databases. Many small businesses may find the service’s specialized databases to be most valuable feature. Database templates are available for asset management, customer relationship management, event registration, an in/out board, sales forecasting, time sheets, and more.

A link on the WebOffice site leads you to a page where you can sign up for a free trial of WebEx Meetings, the popular online meeting service. After the trial period, however, WebEx Meetings becomes an extra-cost service.

A Virtual Office

Collaboration using an online service like WebOffice isn’t quite like sharing documents on an internal LAN, but it can come close. For example, you can easily access documents in a WebOffice Web folder on your PC by creating a new Network Place in Windows. You can sync WebOffice information such as contacts, to-do lists, and appointments with Microsoft Outlook or a Palm-based handheld; you don’t have to be online to check on this information.

WebOffice does not offer some of Office Live’s features, such as Web site hosting and pay-per-click search-engine advertising. If an ISP or another service hosts your site and you want WebEx WebOffice to manage your e-mail, you will need to direct your domain’s MX (Mail Exchange) record to the WebEx server so it can handle your e-mail.

If you need PPC advertising to promote your site, you can sign up directly with Google AdWords, Yahoo Sponsored Search, or Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions.

Despite these deficiencies, many small businesses will find that the collaboration features in the WebOffice Suite are a better mix of services than what Microsoft’s high-end Office Live Premium offers for $40 per month. However, WebOffice is pricier.

WebOffice starts at $60 per month for up to five users with 250MB of shared data storage. Adding e-mail accounts (1GB capacity) for those users tacks on another $30 per month, after an introductory special price of $20. Charges apply for adding capacity to mailboxes ($25 per 1GB per mailbox per year) and shared storage ($30 for 50MB per year). You can also add SSL to deliver privacy using encrypted communications for $300 per year and full text search for $199 a year, which is useful if you share many documents online and want to find them quickly. If you need to add more users, you can upgrade seamlessly to a larger plan. You can assess WebOffice without cost by signing up for a 30-day free trial.

WebOffice vs. Roll Your Own

When a small business grows, it may be tempted to bring Web hosting and e-mail management in-house to achieve greater control. This also makes it easier to add specialized server-based collaboration capabilities.

However, this transition requires a substantial investment in server hardware and software, not to mention obtaining the technical expertise to set up the systems and then keep them running all the time.

Outsourcing Web hosting, e-mail, and collaboration services means fewer headaches for a small business. Technicians in a data center can monitor your online services, along with those of thousands of other businesses, for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week–on a more cost-effective basis than you could on your own.

That freedom from worry and the ability to add users as your business grows are the chief benefits of using a service like WebEx WebOffice.


NetSuite Beefs Up E-Commerce Services

January 16, 2007

By Richard Morochove

One of the difficulties that any small e-commerce business faces is integrating the flow of information to and from its Web site, which is typically hosted by a service, and its accounting software, which usually resides on a local PC or server. You can periodically upload new inventory data and download new sales data to keep things in sync, but that approach doesn’t work as seamlessly and efficiently as it should.

One solution is NetSuite, a venerable online service that handles business accounting and financial management and can also host a financially integrated e-commerce Web site. While NetSuite boasts impressive accounting capabilities, until now it did not offer much flexibility for handling high-end e-commerce needs.

The latest round of improvements to NetSuite significantly enhances its Web site creation and management capabilities. I looked at a beta version of NetSuite version 11, which adds feature after valuable feature for e-commerce businesses, particularly those that sell through different channels, such as retail and wholesale, and those that target international markets.

However, these improvements come at a cost. Feature-rich NetSuite isn’t designed for a budding business on a tight budget. You will spend $1100 per month or more to gain access to the broad range of services that it offers.

Multiple Sites Supported

NetSuite now lets you manage multiple e-commerce Web sites, each with its own domain if necessary. Each site is capable of providing multilingual product descriptions and handling payments in multiple currencies: For example, a site visitor from the United States could read product descriptions written in English and price them in U.S. dollars, while a visitor from France can click on a menu and choose to view descriptions in French and prices in euros. You can establish one site to target consumers, while another aims at wholesale dealers with lower prices and higher minimum purchase requirements. All sites can draw from the same product inventory data.

Every e-commerce app can show you what you sold, but NetSuite now lets you see what you almost sold. NetSuite tracks shopping cart abandonments, so that you can view what products shoppers selected but ultimately opted not to buy. You can then try to capture this lost business by offering the shoppers a special coupon or another incentive.

If you’re a budding, you can use some of the same tools as the big guys to boost sales, such as the automated upsell/cross-sell that recommends related products and ones that previous buyers have purchased.

NetSuite now supports digital downloads for electronic products, a useful feature for sellers of e-books, software, and digital music.

E-commerce sites are often heavily dependent on visitors referred by major search engines such as Google and Yahoo. NetSuite tracks which search terms are most productive in attracting both visitors and sales. The reports can distinguish between the results from free, natural (sometime called “organic”) search referrals and pay-per-click search engine ads, which cost you money.

From NetLedger to NetSuite

NetSuite is now almost unrecognizable from the original service launched years ago, when it was called NetLedger and was marketed as a $10-per-user-per-month basic online alternative to Intuit’s QuickBooks. NetSuite has moved so far upscale that there’s little overlap between their markets now. Today’s NetSuite might appeal to QuickBooks users at the very high end, who are probably running QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions.

NetSuite’s new international e-commerce and Web site creation and management services are currently in beta testing and should be available to NetSuite users in the second quarter of this year.

NetSuite’s base price is $499 per month for a single user. Additional users cost $99 per month. The Site Builder and Site Analytics services cost an additional $299 per month each, regardless of the number of users. That sounds like a lot of money, but it includes accounting and finance functions, Web site hosting, and other capabilities such as calendar and task management. A free trial is available.

NetSuite is overkill for a mom-and-pop operation selling a couple of thousand dollars worth of merchandise per month. However, if you sell at least $20,000 per month and are looking for a platform that would support your business revenue growth to $200,000 or $2 million per month or more, then NetSuite could be just the e-ticket.


Microsoft Office Live Puts Your Business Online

January 8, 2007

By Richard Morochove

Microsoft’s Office Live offers a mix of services for the small business looking to establish an online presence. In addition to Web site and e-mail account management, some editions of Office Live also deliver business services such as contact and time management, and facilitate sharing documents with customers.

Office Live is now a commercial product for U.S.-based users, following a prolonged beta test phase. But while Microsoft’s offering is a good first attempt to better serve the online needs of small businesses, it has a few rough edges.

Limited Design Options

Office Live will appeal most to small businesses that do not have a Web site and want to establish and manage one. The design templates make it easy for neophytes to create and modify their own Web pages. Some interactive Web components, such as a forms submitter and a site search engine, are also included.

Unfortunately, I found the service’s Web Designer to be somewhat unreliable. It didn’t always save my changes when I moved to another page, even after saying it had. And a professional Web site designer would chafe at the limited template options available. Office Live’s Web Designer is far less capable than Microsoft’s FrontPage application, which has been discontinued.

Office Live’s services aren’t especially unique. You can get most of them, such as Web and e-mail hosting, elsewhere. However, Office Live’s suite of services does make an attractive bundle. The services are generally well-integrated, with the notable exception of adManager, an advertising service for promoting your Web site.

To use adManager, you must create a separate account and go through a sign-on procedure from within Office Live. It’s as though adManager doesn’t trust Office Live users, which is tantamount to Microsoft’s right hand being wary of shaking its left. Unlike Office Live, adManager is still a beta service. Presumably, Microsoft will eliminate these clumsy procedures when adManager graduates from beta testing. I plan to review the service at that time.

Three Versions, One Free

Office Live comes in three editions.

The free advertising-supported Office Live Basics provides a domain name along with Web site storage that can hold up to 500MB of data and e-mail management for up to 25 accounts with 2GB of storage each.

Office Live Essentials ($20 per month) boosts Web site storage to 1GB, allows 50 e-mail accounts, and adds online business contact management and workspaces where you can share information, such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets, with your customers. This edition lets you import HTML files–perhaps from an existing Web site–and use more sophisticated third-party Web design tools, which are not included. You can also access e-mail and synchronize your contacts online with Microsoft Outlook on your PC.

Office Live Premium ($40 per month) increases Web site storage to 2GB and adds more business applications to help you manage customers, employees, and projects. You can also use Office Accounting 2007 Express (a separate free download) to manage this business information offline and share it with your accountant.

The free Office Live Basics sounds tempting, but only a stingy business owner would permit Microsoft-supplied advertisements, possibly from competitors, to run on the company’s Web site. Basics could work for personal Web sites; but for businesses it’s really a come-on to promote Essentials, which offers good value for the money. As for Live Premium, I’m not persuaded that it delivers sufficient value to justify the extra 20 bucks a month.

Microsoft’s Office Live paid versions offer free 30-day trials, so you can evaluate the services before you commit.