Q&A: Dr Richard Hill, WebAlertPro, discusses monitoring competitors’ Web sites for business advantage

WebAlertPro is an interesting new service that allows changes to Web sites to be monitored. The programme automatically monitors Web sites and Web pages, identifying changes made to their content and to the content of linked documents, such as terms and conditions and press releases. We spoke to Dr Richard Hill, co-founder of the SaaS product, to find out how the service could be useful for marketers and product managers to monitor the activities of their competitors.

What is WebAlertPro?

WebAlertPro is a powerful new Web site monitoring service that gives unprecedented insight into the updates made to competitor, client and industry Web sites. Used by business owners, marketers and competitive intelligence professionals, WebAlertPro informs decision makers with valuable, actionable business intelligence.

Why do businesses need to monitor changes to competitors’ Web sites?

Competitive intelligence is important for all businesses. Knowing what your competitors are selling, how they’re selling it, and at what prices enables you to compete effectively in the market. A company’s Web site is usually its primary marketing and publishing platform. So it’s the best―and most timely―place to find out what a business is saying about itself and the products and services it offers. Our users can see changes to key personnel announcements, financial statements, new product launches and price changes.

How much can you learn from an amend that you can’t learn from an official statement or a set of definitive Terms and Conditions?

It’s often not the official releases that are the most interesting, because a firm might make subtle changes to its statements and T&C’s that significantly alters the value of the product or service. One of our users noted recently that a competitor had dropped support for their product. A couple of days later he was called by a prospective client asking him about the differences between his product and the competitor’s―and the lack of support in the competitor’s product was a key differentiator. So monitoring Web sites does provide real, tangible insight and value.

How much time should a business spend monitoring the competition?

Businesses don’t spend enough time monitoring the competition because it’s been complicated or expensive. Keeping track of what’s happening on a Web site manually is simply not possible. There are too many pages and too many changes. You would need to devote a significant amount of man power and it’s just not cost effective. But WebAlertPro monitors changes for you, and filters out a lot of the “noisy” or irrelevant ones so you’re not inundated with results. These changes are then sent to you in an easy-to-digest report every day. So in just a few minutes you’re up to speed.

How does WebAlertPro identify what’s important to monitor and what isn’t?

We have a proprietary algorithm called ChangeRank. This assigns an importance score to each change, so small or irrelevant changes can be filtered out. The scoring is based on things like the character length of the change, how often this text occurs across the site, whether it’s been published on the site before, how frequently this text updates and so on. It’s important to get this right.

Many Web sites are large and dynamic and have a lot of frequently changing content, for example rotating client statements or news items, or listed items that get bumped onto the next page with the addition of a new entry. These kinds of changes aren’t important, at least not after they’ve first been seen. As the algorithm revisits a website it’ll learn over time what’s important and what’s not, so you won’t get the same news item showing up every other day.

How does WebAlertPro report and display changes?

Every day―or optionally weekly―you receive an alerts email. This summarises the number of changes for each site being monitored and lists the major changes, highlighting what’s been removed, added or altered. You can see these changes actually in the page too.

We archive every version of the page and highlight in the page any changes compared to the prior version. You can click through to an archived page to see changes in context from a link in the e-mail. And we offer a text-only version of the page that allows you to see hidden changes too. Plus you can see, filter and manage all your alerts in the client area of the WebAlertPro website.

How much of a Web site can you monitor?

As much or as little as you like. The client area of the WebAlertPro Web site makes it very easy to select what parts of a site you’d like to monitor with the graphical SiteBrowser tool. You can select a whole Web site, specific areas of a site or individual pages. It’s very flexible, and of course you can edit what you’re monitoring at any time. You can even monitor specific areas of an individual page if something is of particular interest.

Who do you think will most benefit from this product and why?

We think there are three markets for this. The broadest is business owners and managers. There’s clear value to them in having a daily report detailing the changes on their competitor websites. We’ve also got a number of marketers using the service, both internal practitioners and agency. They’re principally using it to monitor competitor campaigns and pricing. And one of our agency users said that her client couldn’t believe how much she knew about the client’s competitors, so yes it helps you to look smart. Thirdly, and probably the smallest market, is dedicated competitive intelligence professionals.

Can too much monitoring interfere with an employee’s productivity? How do you insure the correct balance between monitoring and output?

We’re aiming to provide valuable, actionable competitor information to business owners and marketers, and it only takes a minute or two to check the daily report summary. But of course there’s lots of detail should you want to drill down. Hopefully we’ve made it as efficient as possible.

Some companies may have privacy concerns. Does your product blur the line between business intelligence and snooping?

We’re only checking content that has been published on a company’s website. We’re not uncovering or accessing private or privileged content so there’s no issue with that. In fact I’d argue this was one of the least intrusive business intelligence services available as we are only accessing and processing data that has been signed off for public consumption.

Christian Harris is editor and publisher of BCW. Christian has over 20 years' publishing experience and in that time has contributed to most major IT magazines and Web sites in the UK. He launched BCW in 2009 as he felt there was a need for honest and personal commentary on a wide range of business computing issues. Christian has a BA (Hons) in Publishing from the London College of Communication.