With BT claiming to have invented the hyperlink and it looking likely that deep linking to anywhere other than a home page will...

With BT claiming to have invented the hyperlink and it looking likely that deep linking to anywhere other than a home page will become illegal, Davey Winder wonders if the walls of e-commerce are about to come tumbling down

What lays at the very heart of every e-commerce solution, no matter what its size, complexity or the market it serves? I've come to the inexorable conclusion that it isn't HTML coding, JavaScript or even SSL.

Nope, I'm convinced that it is the good, old fashioned hyperlink. This is worrying because this seemingly harmless, yet vitally important, cog in the Web e-commerce machinery would appear to be under threat.

Davey's dilema
First, there was BT who claims it invented it and so intend to collect a royalty from all US ISPs to cover customer usage of their property. Yet now the most problematical threat to the humble hyperlink, and ultimately the way we all do business on the Web, has arrived from perhaps an unsurprising source - the European Union.

It all stems from a high profile case of UK recruitment agency StepStone which has obtained an injunction under EU copyright law against a rival firm in Germany to prevent them 'deep linking' to its content.

Deep linking has always been a problem, especially where linked content turns up on a third party site without the full originating frame-set, so appearing to be proprietary content of that Web site - instead of the rightful owner. We'd all agree that this objectionable practice is to be stomped on. However, the StepStone case goes further.

The injunction also complains about deep linking bypassing the home page, replete with the biggest revenue earning banner ads, thus negatively impacting upon their revenue stream. This could mean, that to include a link on a client's Web site to any content other than a homepage, without first gaining explicit written permissions, is illegal under EU law.

Common courtesy aside, and without getting into the small matter of how this effects any European-based search facility, this is bad news for all e-commerce solution providers. Content is still king, and interactivity the throne upon which it is seated. Remove the ability to hyperlink to content streams other than you own, and there is a danger of toppling this particular media monarchy.

Trend spotting
Sometimes the most obvious trends to a troubleshooter consultant type are the most invisible to the hands-on e-commerce solution providers. For example, in the mad rush to both justify costs and prove how cutting edge your technology design team is, often a Flash- heavy splash page gets an inappropriate amount of time dedicated to its creation when compared, page by page, to the rest of the site. If you are saying, "there's nothing wrong with that matey", then you are exactly the person who should read this next bit of advice very carefully indeed.

The trend is not only towards a simpler look, no spinning logos and fanciful animated graphics, but also towards the elimination of splash pages altogether. Whilst Flash certainly has its place in modern Web site design, especially when properly implemented by an integrated UI and design team, splash does not.

If you can't build a home page for your client that is interesting enough on its own to hold the attention of the consumer, then you are doing something wrong. So re-evaluate your design strategy, and do it now before your business suffers.

Metric of the month
PriceWaterhouseCoopers' Internet 150 report has just been released, and it makes sobering reading for anyone interested in European e-commerce performance. Covering the top 150 publicly listed European Internet companies, the report reveals that the value of the European Internet sector halved during the fourth quarter of last year, closing with a total market capitalisation of GBP62bn. Worse, only 28 per cent of companies in the sector are profitable, a fall from 41 per cent in the second quarter.

The number of companies at risk of running out of cash within 12 months has also increased. Even Germany, who leads the way in European e-commerce, saw its stronghold eroded with German companies accounting for 35 per cent of the index by value, compared to 45 per cent previously.

Davey Winder is a consultant specialising in Web site usability issues

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