Sophisticated Web Design

A database can supercharge your Web site.
BY GUIDO L. GEERTS, BARBARA A. WADDINGTON AND STEVEN C. DILLEY

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • MOST CPA FIRMS HAVE STATIC WEB SITES with fixed content. Practitioners can not easily change this data without prior knowledge of a Web programming language, such as html.
  • DATABASE-DRIVEN WEB SITES allow practitioners to change Web content without knowing a Web programming language, thus saving CPAs the cost of hiring Web designers every time they need to update information on their sites.
  • INFORMATION ON YOUR WEB SITE can be customized for each client. Changing the content in the back-end database will change what your clients see when they log on to your site.
  • TO CREATE YOUR OWN DATABASE-DRIVEN Web site, you need a Web browser, Web server, back-end database and middleware. Web host companies can supply your firm with all the necessary ingredients for a setup fee and a $20 to $50 monthly maintenance fee.
  • DATABASE-DRIVEN WEB SITES will maintain and improve your firm’s image for technical expertise, which is especially important for firms that offer IT consulting services. Most important, the database-driven site will help you develop your practice by making your Web site a personal marketing tool.
GUIDO L. GEERTS, PhD, is an assistant professor of accounting and information systems at Michigan State University, East Lansing. His e-mail address is geerts@pilot.msu.edu . BARBARA A. WADDINGTON, CPA, PhD, is an assistant professor of accounting at the University of Michigan, Flint. Her e-mail address is bwadding@umich.edu . STEVEN C. DILLEY, CPA, PhD, is professor of accounting at Michigan State University, East Lansing. He also is a consultant to regional CPA firms. His e-mail address is dilleys@bus.msu.edu .

s recently as five years ago, most CPA firms were scrambling to create an online presence before they missed the “virtual” curve. Partners across the country were congratulating each other for their firms’ “awesome” graphics and the “really cool” Web designs, after which it was back to business as usual. The most a firm expected was the occasional new client that first learned of the firm on the Web. In fact, many CPAs regarded their Web sites as “just another expensive method of publishing a list of client services.” If that is all you still expect from your firm’s site, you are missing the curve.

Today, the benchmark for cutting-edge Web development for business are the database-driven Web sites. They are considered database-driven because the contents of the site actually is stored in a database. They combine a Web browser, a Web server and database software in a way that makes the site accurate, timely, interactive and, most important, personalized for each client. Web sites that are not database-driven are static and require programming every time their content changes.

Why a Database-
Driven Site?
You decide when and how to change the content of your firm’s Web page.

You enjoy long-term savings because you manage the content of your Web site.

You can adapt your site to the individual needs of your clients.

You can always present the most timely information.

You most likely have had some experience using database-driven sites and didn’t even know it. For example, some of the best known companies that have created database-driven Web sites include Amazon ( www.amazon.com ), Charles Schwab ( www.schwab.com ), Federal Express ( www.fedex.com ) and American Airlines ( www.aa.com ). These sites generate new clients because they are interactive and personalized. For example, they allow clients to place and trace orders, access timely account information and learn about events or products that are of special importance to them.

CPA firms do not have to earn $100 million in revenue to take advantage of all the marketing benefits of a more sophisticated Web site. In fact, small firms can establish their own database-driven sites and manage them without having to hire professional Web designers whenever they want them updated. This provides CPAs with a relatively low-cost marketing tool and engages clients with timely and personalized information.

ADD VALUE TO YOUR PRACTICE

Keeping the standard Web site up-to-date can be a daunting, nearly impossible task for the small firm. Practitioners who have established a Web site generally pay professional Web designers—who know Web site programming languages, such as html and xml—when they need it updated. Consequently, it is not the development cost, but the high hourly maintenance fees and the lack of in-house control that discourage smaller firms from developing or expanding their Web presence. Because of this, many firms neglect this important duty, or they put it very low on their list of priorities. Stale information is worse than no information—in most cases a user looking for timely data will not revisit a site that does not provide up-to-the-minute information.

Alternatively, with a database-driven Web site, you can make changes by altering the database and your clients will update your site as they input new information about themselves online. Database-driven Web applications are the most cost-effective solutions for Web sites with frequent content changes. Companies have applied such technology successfully to online catalogs, data broadcasting, service tracking and airline reservations. CPA firms can apply the same technology to make their sites better marketing tools. For example, database-driven sites can include

  • Customized daily or weekly announcements for clients, such as tax filing reminders or SEC requirements.
  • Customized updates on local issues that could affect local clients such as an increase in state or county property taxes.
  • New product and services information such as a hotlink to information on a new payroll service.
  • An interactive checklist or calculators that advise users of the benefits of financial planning.
  • A calendar of social events at which CPA firm members will be present to meet with new and current clients to answer questions or provide information about a specific issue.

ADDING A PERSONAL TOUCH

You can adapt a database-driven Web site to the individual needs of each client. The client inputs an identification code and password to log on to your firm’s site. After the client logs on, the screen announces, “This Web page was designed exclusively for [client’s name].” The site provides a menu of all your firm’s services and the client chooses the services for which it would like regular updates. For example, you can add the latest about software upgrades or answer your IT clients’ frequently asked questions.

In essence, you can cross-market your firm’s services that match your clients’ business needs. The more you know about your clients and their needs, the more you can add to their personal sites.

COLLECTING DATA

Most CPA firms conduct a great deal of their business via e-mail. Information CPAs receive from clients on e-mail can be very difficult to sort. If you just need to answer a few client questions, e-mail is fine, but if you want to store and analyze client information, you need to download it into a database. If your Web site automatically collects client information for you, that information is easy to organize and easily archived, so you can identify frequently asked questions and respond to client needs. Another useful application allows you to monitor your clients’ use of the site and to record your observations into the database. You will not only learn whether your clients are using your site, but such tracking also will reveal which of your services your clients are most interested in using.

Dynamic Web Technology for Intranets

Intranets are private corporate networks built with Internet technology. An intranet is useful for CPA firms that have more than one office and need technology to communicate with staff who work in different locations. Intranets provide a cost-effective way for your staff to share best practices, schedules, research reports and more. Database-driven Web technology should be applied to intranets in the same way it is used on Web sites.

An impressive example of such an application is the compliance research intranet created by the IRS Compliance Research Division, which used database-driven Web technology to build a searchable electronic library, a project management system and a time reporting system.

YOUR OWN DATA COLLECTOR

To create your own database-driven Web site you need a Web browser, Web server, back-end database and middleware. Web browsers are software programs that process and display information they request from a Web server. Popular examples of Web browsers are Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer. Browsers usually are “bundled” with new computers and essentially are cost-free. Clients who access your Web site are doing so through a Web browser. When a client or any other user makes a request to retrieve information, the request is sent from the browser to the Web server over the Internet.

The Web server supports the software needed to create a Web Site on the Internet. Popular Web server software includes Netscape Enterprise Server, Microsoft Internet Information Server and Apache. The Web server software fulfills the requests it receives from Web browsers. The requests range from simply locating an html file to executing a program.

A database is a huge repository of data that are easy to manipulate and easy to query. The integration of the database into your Web applications allows you or your clients to update the database through a Web browser and to post the information retrieved from the database onto your Web site. This makes changing Web site content as simple as adding, modifying or deleting data within the database. Popular database programs include Microsoft Access and Oracle.

Middleware is the glue that makes the Web browser, the Web server and the database work together seamlessly. It is software supported by the Web server that integrates database operations into a Web application. Middleware recognizes requests that ask that a “script” be executed. Scripts are programs used to process data, format data and perform database operations. The emergence of middleware is largely responsible for the increased popularity of database-driven Web applications. Exhibit 1 provides an overview of middleware products.

Exhibit 1: Middleware Products
Products Web site
Active Server Pages www.asp101.com
Cold Fusion www.allaire.com
Sapphire/Web www.bluestone.com
WebHub www.href.com
WebObjects www.apple.com/Webobjects/

Exhibit 2, below, shows how all these tools work together. When a user with access to the system requests to retrieve or manipulate data, the Web browser sends a request to the server to execute a script or program. The middleware on the server recognizes the request to execute a script. In general, the scripts contain a mixture of html commands and tags that will format and process data in the database. In most cases, the database operation commands are structured query language (SQL) statements.

Exhibit 2: Anatomy of a Database-Driven Web Application
Middleware makes the cooperation between user, server and database easy. When an information request is sent to the server, the middleware component establishes the database connection and collects data from the database. Next, a Web page is generated on the fly that contains the collected data which is sent back to the user.

Scripts can combine the data retrieved from the database with html tags to create a Web page on the fly. Most important, if the data on the database change, the Web page changes.

You don’t necessarily have to install and maintain all these Internet tools yourself. You can pay an initial development fee to a Web designer and rent space on a Web server that includes middleware and a back-end database for $20 to $50 per month from a Web host company. A typical configuration offered by a large number of Web host companies includes Windows NT as the operating system, Microsoft Internet Information Server as the server software, Cold Fusion as the middleware and Microsoft Access as the back-end database. Once in place, you will maintain the content of the Web site yourself—this will provide you with real cost savings down the line. For information about Web host companies, see http://webhostlist.internetlist.com .

IMPLEMENTING YOUR OWN SITE

CPA firm Web sites often post staff information such as name, education, e-mail address, telephone number, experience and areas of specialization. Employee pages need to be changed when the employee information changes. Such changes can cost your firm a lot of money if your Web site is not database-driven, especially when a professional Web designer maintains the company’s Web site.

In contrast, you can update the information on your database-driven site using a Web browser. For example, assume you hire a new employee and have to update your Web site. You or anyone who has access to the system uses a data-manipulation form to change the content of the Web site. Exhibit 3 shows a form designed to add a new employee to the database on the Web server for Bautista, Hengesbach, North, CPAs. Note that there is a place on the form to include a digital photograph of the CPA. Because of this, you can load new pictures on your Web server for each new employee without having to rewrite the html code for your Web site. When you finally click on the Add Employee button (see the bottom of exhibit 3), the browser requests a script or program from the server to process the data about the new employee. The script on the server contains an SQL statement that adds a new record to the employee table in the company’s database.

Exhibit 3: Web-Database Interface for Adding Employee Information
This data-entry form allows insertion of employee data into the database through a browser. The data inserted will be the content for the employee information Web page. No HTML programming is needed.

When a client or user anywhere in the world asks for some information about the new employee, a different script is activated. This time, the script contains an SQL statement that retrieves the requested data from the database and generates an html document on the fly. The resulting Web page is shown in exhibit 4. It is the information in the database that determines the content of your Web pages.

Exhibit 4: The Updated Web Page
Company information and data fields such as name and education are fixed. However, the actual data such as “Diane Riley, CPA” are retrieved from the database. When the content of the database changes, the content of the Web page changes.

ENHANCE YOUR FIRM’S IMAGE

It is important that CPAs stay on top of cutting-edge technology, especially when they offer IT consulting services. Your Web site very often is the first contact potential clients will have with your firm. Imagine what a potential client thinks when he or she reads on your site that your firm provides technology consulting and goes on to read something about Windows 95; your clients’ first impression of your firm should not be underwhelming.

Database-driven Web technology will definitely help maintain and improve a firm’s image. Most CPAs are familiar with computerized accounting systems, spreadsheets, database programs, computerized tax return preparation and word processing. Therefore, adding database-driven Web technology will be a snap for most practitioners.

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