By Heidi Anderson, Contributing Editor
If you can afford to ignore 100 million potential customers, don’t bother reading this. But if you want to make sure your Web site is as effective as you think it is, you need to pay attention to Mozilla’s Firefox Web browser.
Most marketers and some Web designers pooh-pooh Firefox concerns because almost 90% of Web users rely on Microsoft's Goliath when surfing. However, consider the following:
o Just one year after its official release, Mozilla's browsers have a global market share of more than 11.5 %, according to OneStat. This growth, which was achieved wholly viral, has slowed to a crawl because the early adopter universe has been almost exhausted. However, our research into viral reach of new technologies indicates that once a new tech leaps from the early adopters to mainstream, watch out! (Consider the Blog phenomenon, which was tiny three years before it hit mainstream.)
o In the United States, the number of Firefox users jumps to more than 14% across the board.
o MarketingSherpa readers, especially those serving tech-savvy and cutting-edge demographics, routinely report much higher figures – upwards of 25%, 30%, even 35% of their site visitors rely on Firefox.
o MarketingSherpa's SherpaStore which is mainly visited by marketing executives in corporate America puts its own number of Firefox users around 20%.
Why do these stats matter to the typical marketer? Because if your Web site was designed and tested exclusively for Internet Explorer (IE) users, you could be losing conversions from a significant segment of your audience – and not even know it.
Plus, even if 100% of your site visitors use Internet Explorer, you could save up to 25% of your Web development and 30% your hosting costs, not to mention improve your search engine rankings, by designing for Firefox first (and IE second). Here are more details: Firefox: A Quick Backgrounder
Firefox is the product of the Mozilla Corporation, a non-profit group with 36 employees based in Mountain View, California. The browser has officially been around for a year now, and while it certainly isn't the only Web Standards-based browser out there, a grassroots movement has put it at the top. Along with smaller players (Netscape, Opera, Safari, etc.), the Firefox browser is eating into Internet Explorer's market share.
Your more savvy Web designers are likely all agog over Firefox, because its support of Web Standards makes it easier to design and maintain effective Web pages. And users are captivated with its features like enhanced security, multiple window tabs and hundreds of freely available extensions. When your developers design with Firefox (in particular) and Web Standards (in general) in mind –- which is not the case with Internet Explorer –- visitors end up with a much smoother Web site experience.
For marketers, these standards are so darn important because they affect the bottom line: your budget. In fact, The Web Standards Project – an organization biased toward standards, to be sure, but one with an impressive membership – estimates that before today's growing lack of support for standards, the "fractured browser market" was adding at least 25% to the cost of developing Web sites. And that's just one tiny piece of the revenue picture.
"Housing construction, electrical wiring, automobile design all benefit from design standards,” says Scott McDaniel, MarketingSherpa's own Internet Director. "Web site construction is maturing in much the same way."Six business benefits of Web Standards-based design
Okay, so you may be saying to yourself that's all good and nice, but only 5% of my audience uses Firefox, so why should I redesign for standards? Here are six key reasons:
1. Increased search engine optimization
Even if 99.99 % of your visitors use Internet Explorer, you could see large financial gains from a site redesign. If you redesign your site to comply with most of the standards set out by the World Wide Web Consortium (affectionately known as the W3C), you are almost guaranteed to significantly increase your search engine rankings.
"Our Yahoo! and Google session starts have gone way up since our site redesign, and that's a measurable ROI," says Greg Penhaligon, Senior Technical Designer at CNET's Download.com. "It's almost worth redesigning just for that." When your design team follows standards, the streamlined code makes it easier for search engines to crawl through, index and rank your pages.
2. Proper content presentation, including shopping carts and "contact us" forms
No site wants to attract customers who go through the trouble of browsing your site and are ready to buy your products, only to realize that they can't use your shopping cart. Or that they can't use simple online tools like loan calculators, data collection forms or even some navigation bars.
3. Decreased development and maintenance costs
The folks at CNET estimate it took about 30% less time to build Download.com using Web standards than doing it "the old-fashioned way," and that's just part of the story.
Chris Norris, Webmaster for Middlebury College, says that when developing for the college's primary Web site, his staff's test environments now include Web Standards-based browsers like Firefox and Opera. One direct result of this effort is that his staff has had more time to focus on project work, thanks to a significant drop in calls from unhappy site visitors. "We used to get calls and emails daily from visitors complaining that our site didn't work properly in their particular OS or browser, so the new site makes it easier for us to focus on the day-to-day aspects of our job," Norris says.
And, he adds rhetorically, "What kind of impression would we be making on visitors such as prospective students and/or their parents if they were to load up Middlebury's Web site and see a bunch of broken pages?"
4. Lower bandwidth usage
Sure, bandwidth usage will depend upon the size, features and traffic of your site, but lower bandwidth usage is good for almost any size site. And if your site is a high-traffic one, designing with Web Standards in mind and testing in Firefox can save you big bucks in bandwidth costs. "If you reduce your bandwidth needs by 30%, you can save a lot of money each year, depending on the size of your site," says Penhaligon. "When you consider that Download.com is one of the top 10 most visited sites on the Web, you can imagine what a 30% reduction in bandwidth would mean to us."
5. Faster download times
Pages that load more quickly mean a better user experience, whether your visitor is using Firefox, Internet Explorer, or another Web browser. For example, the SherpaStore.com was just redesigned in accordance with Web Standards, and the store was able to reduce page size 30%-50%, for a better user – and hopefully better buying – experience.
6. Web viewing beyond the computer (your site on wireless devices & RSS)
Increasingly, your customers may be viewing your Web content not on a computer but on a cell phone, PDA, Blackberry or other device. When you follow standards, it makes it easier to separate the content from the presentation, and your content will work in a wide variety of devices.
"We receive requests for our Web content to be delivered to a variety of different types of applications and devices, such as RSS readers, PDAs and cell phones, and the new site design should make it much easier to respond to those requests," Norris says.Suggested five-step action plan
If you are wondering if you need to go to your boss and say the entire site absolutely needs to be redesigned for Firefox, the most likely answer is no. Firefox will render previous generations of HTML accurately, although perhaps not perfectly.
"Unfortunately, the web browser most used and for which HTML code is most frequently optimized is IE 6," says Joy Busse of Busse Design, a Web design firm. "If your site was optimized for IE 6 and not tested in Firefox at the time of design, then there might be discrepancies between how the site renders in both browsers."
If your organization already designs for Web Standards and tests in Firefox –- congratulations. But if you don't, we recommend you go through the following steps:
Step 1. Take stock of your current site visitors. As Busse says, "It's all about user stats. If you can go into your browser stats and see that 99% of your visitors use IE 6, you might not want to make the change. But if you realize, 'Whoa, 20 % use Firefox!' you need to make a change." And remember this doesn't even touch upon the issue of search engine optimization or some of the other browser-independent benefits we mentioned earlier.
Step 2. Figure out how much it will cost you to redesign. Depending upon the complexity of the site, you could spend a couple hundred dollars to revamp your site, or you might spend upwards of $10,000 to redesign a huge site.
Step 3. Figure out how much you're losing by not redesigning. Consider site maintenance, search engine rankings, and bandwidth costs and if a lack of functionality is turning away visitors. When you add it all up, you might realize how quickly you would recoup redesign costs.
Step 4. Check if your designers know how to code for Web Standards and test with Firefox. We suspect that most of them will be thrilled that you've gotten with the program, and they'll tell you they've been designing according to Web Standards all along. But if they haven't, we have a list of resources for them (and you) at the end of this article.
Step 5. Recommend that your developers or your outside design firm design in Firefox, and then tweak it for IE. "I design in Firefox, and then I do workarounds for Internet Explorer," explains McDaniel. "This way the site will now most likely work well on both PCs and Macs and look good in all modern browsers. It's just more efficient."What’s next -- Firefox's future
Over the past year, Firefox has grown due largely to a grass roots movement. Mozilla relies primarily on word of mouth (and word of blog), although it recently ran a two-page ad in The New York Times celebrating its birthday in what Mozilla called "the largest open source fundraising campaign in history." And that probably won't change, as Mozilla is unlikely to be sold to someone who plans a concerted, big-budget market plan.
"While I'm not a lawyer, I'm pretty sure that if the Mozilla Foundation tried to sell the Mozilla Corporation (the people paid to work on Firefox) that would jeopardize its nonprofit status. Plus, the code is all open source, so that can't really be sold at all," says Asa Dotzler, a co-founder of the Spread Firefox project. "Legal stuff aside, it's just not going to happen. Firefox is going to continue to be developed to support the Mozilla Foundation's mission of preserving choice and promoting innovation on the Internet."Useful links related to this article
Despite not knowing for certain where Firefox's market share will be next year, it's clear you need to pay attention to it now. To help you with this, we've put together a list of resources
1. Ack! Feel the pain of the Web sites that are not currently designed for Firefox users -- three real-life examples: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/firefox/study.html
2. Mozilla is the home of the Firefox browser, and the browser can be downloaded at http://www.mozilla.org/
3. Still not convinced that standards-based design can increase search engine rankings? Then check out Andy Hagans' article "High Accessibility Is Effective Search Engine Optimization" at http://alistapart.com/articles/accessibilityseo
4. MACCAWS (Making Commercial Case for Adopting Web Standards) offers an in-depth and somewhat non-technical look at standards at http://www.maccaws.org/kit/
5. 'Designing with Web Standards' by Jeffery Zeldman is an authoritative look at making the case for Web Standards design from a business and usability perspective. http://www.zeldman.com/dwws/
6. Case studies on companies including AT&T and The Onion that have switched to standards-based design are found at The Weekly Standards Web site at http://www.weeklystandards.com/
7. SpreadFirefox is the home for the community of Firefox users whose goal is to spread the use of Firefox. To find out what they're up to, see http://www.spreadfirefox.com/
8. To view the newly redesigned MarketingSherpa’s SherpaStore (the first of our sites to be revamped with Firefox in mind) go to: http://www.sherpastore.com Reader response letters to this article:
"Just a quick note to thank you for publishing the article encouraging people to write to web standards."
"Not mentioned -- but vital! -- is to not only WRITE to standards, but to VALIDATE. Simply writing to standards will NOT fully succeed because:
1. Most practitioners don't actually know what the standards are, and will only succeed in getting some/most of them right.
2. Most of us aren't perfect executers and will screw up more often than we think -- particularly true for those of us who build database-driven, dynamic web sites.
THE REAL RULE: The only way to really get it right is to test all (or at least representative) pages with a third-party HTML validator.
One such tool is offered by W3C, itself, and another that I use is this one from the Web Design Group (WDG): http://www.htmlhelp.com/tools/validator/
Also, all CSS should be validated as well -- errors there can be no less devastating to presentation, and any CSS written to satisfy MSIE is almost certain to be non-compliant for compliant browsers.
One strategy is to provide the means on every page on the site to validate it against standards. That allows anyone to do ad-hoc testing as they browse to verify whether what "looks funny" in their browser is the fault of the browser or of the code. MSIE is not a compliant browser, and as a Microsoft product, probably never will be because its management is "committed" to non-proprietary standards only as a marketing ploy, not as an engineering requirement. Most of the stuff auto-generated by Microsoft web-creating software is wildly non- compliant and bloated crapolla. Don't expect that to change soon, if ever.
There are other implications not mentioned in the article, not the least that using a validator largely eliminates the huge delays required in some organizations to repeatedly send code into testing. If the coder has the testing tools built in and can check the results by merely clicking a button, the only external testing required is acceptance testing. The rest is nothing more than a waste of resources. I'm a former hands-on operations consultant and have also been a professional web software tester, and I can assure you most of the software engineering community continues to pour buckets of money into meaningless testing wasteful of time, talent, and money. And their stuff still comes out broken. But beliefs are more powerful than facts or results, and I suspect this hideously impractical process will continue as long as management remains willing to pay for it. Mostly it's just another investment in engineering ego.
The only reliable approach is to code by hand and then validate. In the long run, it's also fastest because total, end-to-end time to achieve complaint code is dramatically reduced. Only a few well-known web applications are standards complaint (e.g. the Word Press blog), and of these, most all are products of the open source world.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you click on the validator URL above, and then paste in the URL for this Sherpa article on the subject of standards, you'll get some immediate feedback suggesting why I say explicit validation is more critical to getting it right than is public declaration of intention.
Best regards, Bud Hovell"