Keeping up appearances

How many websites actually serve the purpose for which they were designed, and how many are just feeble attempts to ride the...

How many websites actually serve the purpose for which they were designed, and how many are just feeble attempts to ride the e-business bandwagon? reports Glyn Moody

Many predicted the year 2000 would bring catastrophe for the computing world. And, of course, they were right - but not in the way anyone foresaw. Instead of the once-in-a-thousand-years Millennium Bug, it was everyday common-sense that finally brought large segments of the high-tech industry to its knees. After a period when e-commerce companies seemed able to defy the laws of gravity - to say nothing of economics - things came down with a bump and a vengeance.

Against this background it was inevitable that pundits and people should over-react, and declare the dotcom revolution dead. But it is nothing of the kind. Rather, the real revolution has yet to happen. Much of what we have seen so far is simply online greed: so-called entrepreneurs who have jumped on the e-commerce bandwagon with the aim of parting gullible investors from their money.

It is hardly surprising that, because of this, many Internet users are increasingly wary of e-commerce. At best they know that many of these operations will not be around in 2002; at worst they fear that they are simply part of some high-tech scam.

As a result, those with serious, long-term e-commerce intentions need to review their operations now to head off this kind of cynicism. Fortunately, studying the mistakes made by so many of their e-siblings last year provides useful hints about fundamental questions that every online operation needs to ask itself on a regular basis.

For example, one of the central issues is whether a company's website really offers anything of value to the customer. All too often websites amount to little more than a form of vanity publishing, created so as to keep trendy CEOs happy. Others are born out of a fear of being left behind, not from some burning desire to employ exciting new technologies in the service of customers.

Alongside good intentions there must be the right implementation. Even otherwise laudable projects have failed because they have chosen to execute their ideas in a way that was essentially at odds with the new medium in which they were operating. Just as e-commerce sites have to be their customers' faithful servants, so it is important to ensure that Net technology is subservient to the larger commercial aims. 2001 will not be an easy year for e-commerce, but at least it is no longer considered hopelessly old-fashioned to prepare for tomorrow - instead of simply hoping that the great cyberspace party would never end.

Against the current climate of dotcom doom and gloom, one word is uppermost in the mind of anyone connected with online activity: profit.

Where before the e-commerce strategies were all about 'first-mover advantage' or 'building an audience', today they are almost exclusively focused on creating a viable business.

Of course, some sites have been aware of this for some time, which explains the continuing attempts to come up with a model that leads to profitability sooner rather than later. A case in point is the early search engine pioneer

Created five years ago as a research project at IT supplier Digital, AltaVista soon established itself as a notch beyond rivals. Initially Digital seemed content to fund the service as a marketing exercise. But later it became apparent that AltaVista would have to pay its way. To do so, various initiatives were taken: banner ads started appearing, search software was sold for intranet use, regional sites were set up.

But even after AltaVista had left the Digital fold and added all kinds of e-commerce extras, it was still unable to come up with a clear strategy for making money. Today, its site is a disappointing mixture of elements that fail to cohere into a well-defined online presence. Against this background it is instructive to consider the latest star in the search engine firmament, It, too, began as a research project, but soon went commercial. It, too, has needed to come up with a way of making money.

Its solution is to sell what it calls AdWords - small text-only ads that appear when previously-chosen keywords are entered by visitors. This provides advertisers with highly-targeted marketing, but does not confuse editorial with advertising and so diminish the authority of the Google service.

Its AdWords strategy is nicely-harmonised with the main strength of Google - the quality and independence of its search results. Nor does the addition of AdWords blur the focus of searches (though this includes offering a directory as well as automated indexing). In fact, Google has been even more shrewd. It allows advertisers to create, preview and buy AdWords online. In other words, it makes it almost as easy to use keyword marketing as to carry out keyword searches - a very clever move.


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