Dell, a leading provider of technology products and services worldwide, was founded in 1984. From 1998 to 2008, the company’s revenue increased from U.S.$12 billion to $61 billion. Dell strives to provide a superior experience and to form a long-lasting connection with each customer. Dell.com, a key channel for the company, has a presence in more than 150 countries and is translated into 26 languages. Over the last four quarters, 500 million visitors have generated 1 billion site visits and viewed 13 billion Web pages. In addition to serving as the company’s storefront, the site also provides access to services, financing, customer support, downloads and drivers, and customer ratings and reviews.
In 2008, to continue to deliver on its promise of excellent customer service, increase revenues, and reduce costs, the company decided to improve the technology infrastructure behind Dell.com. The company refers to this initiative as “rebuilding the core.” Jeremy Gunn, Business Architect in the Dell.com Capabilities Team at Dell, says, “We needed to empower our business units to easily deliver content to customers. This meant giving them tools that allow them to update content easily and manage the look and feel of the site without relying on IT.”
The existing site was based on a “large, homegrown application environment that required people to have a certain degree of technical skill in order to successfully deliver content,” explains Gunn. The environment included a third-party enterprise content management (ECM) system for storing Web content and custom applications for managing it. It was built on custom-developed code that included both proprietary code to transform content into an XML-based Web format and Microsoft® ASP.NET code from an earlier version of the Microsoft .NET Framework.
To add new content to the site or update existing content, a user had to submit a change request to technical resources using a Web-based form. The change request was routed to an XML developer to implement the update. But the developer first had to find, within the catalog of Web pages on Dell.com, all pages that would be affected by the change. Although the company maintained a complex site map for managing the relationships among pages, “this discovery process was largely based on the developer’s institutional knowledge of the site,” says Gunn. “We wanted a marketer to be able to enter the relevant information directly into the Web content management system and immediately start an automated content updating process from that point, eliminating the intermediate request process.”
The sheer volume of Web site content was also a strain on the company. “Although we had created a tremendous amount of flexibility through the use of XML to dynamically create pages based on business needs, this flexibility also made the site unmanageable,” says Tim Hargreaves, IT Senior Development Manager at Dell. “We publish in 26 languages for more than 150 countries, and it’s not uncommon that a customer’s purchase path includes 100 to 150 different pages. It became difficult to manage the millions of pages that make up the site, at a reasonable cost.” Hargreaves continues, “We needed to implement a comprehensive ECM solution with a standardized workflow, and we needed to be able to manage page relationships dynamically rather than manually.”
The enormity of the site was also a challenge in terms of providing customers with the most relevant information, whether they were conducting a search from within Dell.com or from an external Web site. Additionally, the company wanted to provide the most relevant results possible in the related links area of pages viewed by customers. “It was a matter of making sure our customers could find the right content at the right time,” says Gunn. “We were trying to better connect our customers with the information they are looking for. Ultimately, we want to keep people on the site. Even though our searches worked well, our indexing was not optimal—there was room for improvement.”
Hargreaves explains, “We wanted to fully integrate our search solution with our ECM system. In the past, they had functioned as separate solutions. We were familiar with the power of search as it relates to building content dynamically, and for the 2009 calendar year, giving users relevant search results was a top priority. To continue to drive revenues, we needed to generate the most effective search results possible.” Dell wanted to create a site architecture that could effectively serve its global business units and would enable the company to generate dynamic Web content for an improved customer experience across market segments, languages, and regions—all while requiring minimal intervention from the IT department.
After an in-depth evaluation process, Dell decided to rebuild the core of Dell.com on an integrated set of Microsoft products and technologies. The solution includes Microsoft Office SharePoint® Server 2007 as the content-authoring environment, with FAST™ enterprise search technology as the search engine. It uses ASP.NET 3.5, part of the Microsoft .NET Framework, to render the content-authoring interface and the user interface for Dell.com.
Dell evaluated enterprise content management systems from different vendors, including Office SharePoint Server 2007, which the company already used for document management and internal collaboration among project teams and business units. “We produced a scorecard for each product we evaluated against a list of the capabilities we were looking for,” says Hargreaves. Key criteria included extensibility, manageability, and out-of-the-box functionality.
Dell conducted a proof of concept with the two products that emerged as finalists. “The decision to go with Office SharePoint Server 2007 came down to the fact that it provided excellent out-of-the-box tools for implementing business processes like workflow and that it provided a familiar environment for easy adoption by our business units,” says Hargreaves. The new environment also allows Dell to take advantage of Windows® Workflow Foundation, a technology for building workflow-enabled applications, to ensure that content meets quality requirements.
Content authors now initiate changes, such as editing an existing page or creating a new page, from a SharePoint document list. This starts the updated workflow, which has formalized the review process by ensuring that the appropriate individuals—including copy editors, legal reviewers, and taxonomists (who check to make sure that the changes meet requirements for search engine optimization)—sign off on the updates. The workflow automatically triggers e-mail messages to those involved in the review, notifying them that their attention is required.
Content authors can edit directly within the context of the Web site, using rich content editing and review tools and system-based workflows for collaboration and approval.
Dell has also integrated Office SharePoint Server 2007 with its third-party translation-management system. Content that requires translation is automatically transferred to a server running the translation-management system, translated, and sent back into the SharePoint Server 2007 workflow process.
Dell has relied on FAST enterprise search technology since 2003. “We’ve continued to benchmark FAST against best-of-breed industry solutions, as we do with any of the products we use to conduct e-commerce,” says Hargreaves. “We’ve done a lot of homework on top-tier search solutions. Many other solutions are very strong in one area but weak in others. FAST impressed us with its great mix of key characteristics including crawl, linguistic and custom pipeline relevancy capabilities, and data mining and tuning.” Hargreaves adds, “The Microsoft acquisition of FAST gave us more confidence that we were going down the right path.”
The FAST engine retrieves information for user-driven searches, and it also enables Dell to dynamically build Dell.com page content. In addition to merchandising information and editorial content that is authored and stored in Office SharePoint Server 2007, FAST indexes and queries many other data stores, such as the Dell product catalog (which includes information about PC systems, software, and peripherals), the downloads and drivers database, knowledge base articles, Dell online support, troubleshooting, and customer ratings and reviews, as well as user forums, testimonials, and blogs.
“When you talk about enterprise search,” says Gunn, “Most people think of a keyword search. In the context of Dell.com, just about anything you see on the site is delivered by the FAST application.” For instance, FAST generates the page navigation on Dell.com. During the browsing process, as a customer refines his or her search through facet interaction, the page navigation and related content are dynamically updated as data is indexed and harvested through the FAST engine. FAST also dynamically updates the links to related products and other resources. (See Figure 1.)
Because Office SharePoint Server 2007 works with ASP.NET, Dell was able to take advantage of its extensive investment in Microsoft development technologies in designing its new content management system. “Dell has an extremely strong relationship with Microsoft,” says Gunn. “As our business evolves, we can easily customize the solution to meet our needs.”
ASP.NET 3.5 and the Microsoft Visual C#® programming language are the tools that Dell employs to create the user interface and interactive experience on Dell.com. Using Microsoft Visual Studio® Team System 2008 Team Suite, with Visual Studio Team System 2008 Team Foundation Server as a central repository for Dell.com project data, developers can easily customize standardized page layouts and templates that can be used by content authors among the company’s many business units.
As of April 2009, the “About Dell” corporate Web content is running on the new Dell.com architecture, as are various content offerings for small business, enterprise, and public solutions. The company is actively migrating the legacy portions of Dell.com to the new solution.
By using integrated Microsoft products and technologies to rebuild the core of Dell.com, Dell has simplified the authoring and management of its Web content, while still providing a highly flexible environment for content authors. It has also enhanced the user experience, which Dell expects to boost traffic volumes and increase customer loyalty. The new solution helps the company significantly reduce IT involvement in the management of its Web site.
With FAST as the search engine for Dell.com, the company can provide users with relevant content without requiring an intensive manual effort from the IT team. “FAST increases our ability to effectively manage metadata within our Web content,” says Hargreaves. “And Office SharePoint Server 2007 gives us the ability to properly manage our content repository. These combined capabilities help us create more effective pages, with lots of related content, without the added expense of manually connecting each piece of content that pertains to a particular customer’s activity on the site.”
Gunn adds, “Office SharePoint Server 2007 and FAST enable us to give the customer a consistent, cohesive experience.”
Although it is still in the initial stages of deployment, the effectiveness of the new site has already been proven in user acceptance testing. “We conducted extensive tests and customer studies to ensure the effectiveness of our site and that the interactions it provides are something our customers will benefit from,” says Hargreaves.
The new site also delivers a higher-quality browsing experience for Dell customers. With page content built dynamically through the FAST search engine, Dell will no longer have to depend on developers to link pages together. By reducing manual coding that is prone to error, the number of broken links that users experience will also be reduced.
Dell expects that the enhanced customer experience will result in higher traffic volumes, as well as a higher rate of success in converting Web site visits to actual sales. “Our Microsoft-based architecture helps us minimize the number of customers who abandon the site prior to completing a purchase,” says Hargreaves. “They’ll have a better overall experience, find the environment more informative, spend more time on the site, and be more inclined to complete a purchase.”
Dell used ASP.NET to build the interface so that business users could edit site content. “Microsoft development tools allow us to build an interface and authoring environment that really give our users a lot of control to design pages with a freedom that they didn’t have before,” explains Hargreaves. “The response from our business units has been very positive.”
The new environment also improves the workflow process. “Before, our approval processes were not strictly enforced,” says Hargreaves. “The authoring tools and workflow in Office SharePoint Server 2007 ensure that content meets corporate requirements. And, at any time, we can see where a page is in the publication process. It’s a highly intuitive environment for our business users because they are already accustomed to the tools in the 2007 Microsoft Office system.”
Gunn adds, “In our evaluations, this is where Office SharePoint Server 2007 really separated itself from the competition. We felt that the familiarity of the Office SharePoint Server environment, and their familiarity with the Microsoft Office interface, would enable business users to own and manage their content from end to end. We didn’t see this capability in other products.”
The content management environment that Dell designed now empowers its business users to author site content without the intervention of the IT team. Hargreaves says, “Microsoft technologies have helped us almost totally get out of the business of user interface development for Dell.com. Now we can devote that time to other tasks.” The Dell IT department realizes additional time savings because it is less involved in creating workflow or auditing content deployment processes. Hargreaves explains, “All of this is available out of the box in Office SharePoint Server 2007.”
“Our ability to enter new markets quickly is critical,” says Gunn. “Office SharePoint Server 2007 helps us give more control to our business units so they can rapidly deploy content in any number of permutations based on language or region.” Office SharePoint Server 2007 also helps Dell react quickly to change. When the company is launching a new product, it can schedule related content updates to coincide with the product launch. And through customizations to Office SharePoint Server workflow, Dell can manage those updates in bulk. “For instance, if at the eleventh hour a launch date is delayed by three days,” explains Gunn, “we can easily find all the related content updates and override the publication date with a few clicks of the mouse. Office SharePoint Server allows us to facilitate the accurate publication of content on a broad and massive scale.” Dell plans to continue to improve and expand its model of delivering Web site content that dynamically constructs itself around the needs and interests of customers. “Dell.com is a vital component of our e-commerce business,” says Hargreaves. “Microsoft has enabled us to properly manage our Web content and to provide customers with the information they are looking for. In basing our Dell.com Web site on Microsoft products and technologies, we are confident we made the right choice.”
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