What we do on the Internet

Harvard Business School’s ‘Working Knowledge’ web site has an excellent article exploring how to quantify the economic impact of the Internet. You can read the article here.

One interesting snippet included in the article is a TNS study reporting on the leading activities of Internet users:

As noted in the article, the majority of activities are funded by advertising one way or another. We don’t pay to use a search engine or read the news (yet – certain news moguls would like to change that…)

I was surprised to see price comparison sites featuring so high up. But what is interesting is that the only two activities not dependent on advertising or affiliate marketing to fund their Internet business models are online banking and paying bills online. Note that number 5 is visiting a brand or product web site, not necessarily buying anything whilst you’re there. How news thinks it can achieve what only banks and utility services have achieved on a mainstream scale is anyone’s guess. Whilst ‘Lookup news’ will likely remain near the top, what form of news could change entirely.

On a related note, Gerry McGovern has an excellent article talking about the differences between Google and Yahoo. Specifically, how Yahoo switched its focus to advertisers whilst Google remains focused on the end-user despite both having the same revenue goals. Proof is in the pudding, as Google continues to rise and Yahoo continues to fall. If they want to make money on the Internet, maybe those news moguls should take a leaf out of Google’s book instead of wanting to torch it.


Friday thought: do books matter?

Over the past month, I’ve listened to Baroness Susan Greenfield three times. First, reading an article in The Sunday Times. Second, in the audience at one of her talks. Third, hearing an interview on the radio. The same topic came up at all three events (not surprising, since she has a new book to promote) – the effect new technology is having on learning. Or, rather, the disastrous effect new technology is having on learning.

And I have to say, I disagree with her argument and pessimism. Now she is a professor, at Oxford no less. And I am a mere mortal without so much as Bachelors degree to my name. But her belief seems to be that books are absolutely essential to educational development and learning. If you don’t read books, you’ll never progress beyond the mentality of a young child. It’s a wonder how we ever invented books in the first place…

Central to the argument is that children are now flitting between multiple different information mediums, nibbling lots of content but never chewing it properly before swallowing. And those pesky computer games are distorting our perception of reality. (I’d argue that, if anything, it has the opposite effect – making reality so depressingly clear that people prefer to live in the virtual.)

I agree that lots of nibbling is no substitute for a good book, if you want to dive into the theory and history of a subject. Just as books and computer games are no substitute for real-world experience. But I’m not sure the future being painted is quite as apocalyptic as the baroness believes. Computer simulations introduce all sorts of possibilities and new ways of learning. Imagine if we were living in the time when writing was just invented. The theory then would have probably been along the lines: “Writing words down will destroy the art of story-telling. It will ruin our ability to bond and form emotional connections with one another, to learn first-hand from our elders, transforming our identity of who and what we are.”

Agree, disagree? Here’s a link to one of her interviews – iD: The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century by Susan Greenfield (The Sunday Times, May 08)

Web Traffic Value

The New York Times has an article – The Best Kind of Traffic for Web Sites (free registration required to view) – about the value of visitors to retail web sites. The following chart shows the difference in value depending on whether you click through from a search result, from a paid search ad (i.e. displayed alongside search results) or direct (entering the address of the site in the browser/clicking on a saved bookmark):

Visitors who clicked on paid ad links were more likely to buy and spent more on each order than visitors who click on ‘unpaid’ search results, although nothing compared to visitors who go direct. The chart makes a compelling argument for a) having a short web address (I’m quicker at typing amazon.co.uk than I am at locating it’s bookmark); and b) giving customers a reason to want to come back (I often check reviews at Amazon) and hence remember the address or bookmark it.

The statistics were supplied by Engine Ready, an Internet marketing company, who analyzed 18.7 million visits over two years to web sites run by 27 of its 500 clients. You could ask ‘why those 27?’ A broader data set would be more convincing.

Technorati tags: online marketing; seo

The Mobile Web

One Internet-related trend that has been slow to take off has been the mobile web – bringing the Internet to mobile devices. The following article has a good write up about marketing and the mobile internet: Mobile Marketing has finally arrived

The mobile web faces various challenges, not least that many web sites today have yet to create site designs suited for small screens. But I suspect the biggest reason for slow adoption has nothing to do with the technology.

I like to use my mobile phone for sync’ing email and browsing the Internet. But. It costs a small invisible fortune. For starters, the majority of mobile phone networks seem to focus their pricing structures around phone calls and sending texts. Your monthly subscription will typically include a lump of free call minutes and free text messages, but zero freebies involving the Internet. And even if you have to pay for your calls, you can judge how expensive the call is going to be. Even if you can’t remember your actual call rate, simply multiple the duration of the conversation by 50p (in the UK) should give a suitable worst case scenario. Text messaging is even simpler – you pay a flat fee per text usually. But data is an invisible mine field because the mobile operators typically charge by the volume of data downloaded. This poses some challenges. a) there is no visual clue about how much data is downloaded when you are browsing the web or sync’ing email, and b) you can’t easily control the volume of data that has to be downloaded. Net result: After seeing some hefty data charges on my monthly bill, my mobile internet browsing days are being scaled down to the bare minimum.

I am rubbish at text messaging, and don’t use anywhere near my free allowance. I don’t use up all my call allowance each month either. I want a mobile phone subscription that includes a certain amount of free data downloads too… but that still does not solve the second issue – how do you control how much data is downloaded? Is it going to be trial and error to find out which sites are mobile-friendly versus mobile-costly?

Technorati Tags: Mobile Web

Lost in hyperspace

I was wandering through last week’s NewScientist magazine when I stumbled across a letter that I had to read three times to comprehend the second last paragraph… not that it was incomprehensible, just the author is quite obviously a lot brainier than me and used long words. (Turns out, he’s even invented a few of his own, like Intertwingularity) The reason for persevering was that it included a couple of gems about the history of hypertext and its influence on managing information:

That project dumbed down hypertext to one-way, embedded, non-overlapping links… XML is only the latest, most publicised, and in my view most wrongful system that fits this description…

😦 so much for my love affair with XML.

The closing comment was most interesting:

I believe humanity went down the wrong path because of that project at Brown. I greatly regret my part in it, and that I did not fight for deeper constructs. These would facilitate an entire form of literature where links do not break as versions change; where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; showing the origins of every quotation…

Blimey, that would make for a useful online document management system… Anyways, the whole letter is available online, including the paragraph that I made such hard work over. I think he is over-harsh in his criticism of the hypertext we have ended up with, but the author is none other than Ted Nelson.

Web Design Flaws – part 2

So, more on my pet frustrations with organisations unable to get Web 1.0 right and why that should be fixed before everyone gets too carried away with the potential of Web 2.0… (You can read part 1 here)

Part 2 – Email

Why do companies do such a bad job of using email to connect with customers? They force you to enter your email address before you can do anything (e.g. download a document or trial software) and then spam you with useless automated messages from that point onwards but don’t provide a way for you to respond.

Sample culprit: Handango (http://www.handango.com)

I have an iPaq 4150 – gorgeous little skinny PDA that, thanks to a spare battery, can keep running all day (8 hours+ including watching movies). It serves 3 primary functions: my organiser (calendar, contacts, notes, tasks, email + syncs the lot with my work and home PCs), research (AvantGo, RSS reader + viewers for most doc formats), and play (games, movies, music, ebooks etc. – thanks to 1.5Gb of SD storage). Actually, it’s now got a 4th use, having acquired a GPS receiver and installed PocketStreets, but I digress. I decided I needed a new game for distraction during travel times, and went for a browse on Handango’s site. I decided to ‘trial’ Riven (‘trial’ = trailer rather than demo, as it turned out), which naturally required me to enter my email address in order to download the required file. Sure enough, a few days later, I receive an automated email thanking me for recently downloading a trial and including the link should I wish to purchase the full program. The email then includes a ‘few suggestions’, should I be looking for something else. The closing blurb goes as follows:

This is a one time email sent to the email address as entered when downloading a trial application from Handango. You are not subscribed to any additional mailing lists.


Why would Handango not be interested in any reply I might want to make? Had the email instead ended along the lines ‘We’re interested in your feedback on this trial and how we can improve our services, please send any comments to [insert email address]’, I would have clicked the link and sent them the following response:

“Thanks for the email. I have actually already purchased Riven but from another web site. Whilst checking reviews to see what others thought of the game running on a PDA, an advert popped up offering the product at a 25% discount over on ClickGamer and I purchased it from there. Had you also been offering the same discount, I would have purchased it from you having previously purchased from your site.”

At least that way, Handango would know a) the trial worked, in that it led to a purchase, and b) they lost the sale because the identical product was available on discount somewhere else. As a result, they could perhaps work with the supplier to negotiate a discount to protect future potential sales and even, shock horror, go one step further and respond with something along the lines: “We’re sorry not to have been able to offer the product at the same price as one of our competitors. Next time, please do contact us first as we will always try to match the lowest available price for software.” And you know what, if they replied like that, I would check back with them first next time. If you want to increase your potential sales, basic analytics from your web site won’t help much, you need feedback. I don’t doubt I could revisit the web site, locate the ‘contact us’ link that is likely to exist and supply some feedback there, but a) it takes a lot more effort on my part, and b) will disappear amongst unrelated emails within the standard website inbox.

The web offers also sorts of ways to increase sales and improve customer service, but it requires different methods and processes to traditional channels. First and foremost, it needs to be as easy as possible for your potential customers to get what they want. If you want rich feedback, make it as easy as possible to do so (you went to the trouble of collecting that email address…) It seems that very few companies really take the effort to use the Web well to improve their business…

(Again, just like the last post, I must stress, the culprit named here just happened to be a site I’ve visited recently. They are not alone and there will be plenty of other examples out in cyberspace.)

Web Design Flaws – part 1

Whilst everybody warbles on about the wonders of Web 2.0, am I the only person who wonders why so many companies do such a lousy job of implementing Web 1.0 technologies (i.e. web site and email services)?

Part 1 – Web Sites

Why do web sites make it difficult for you to find and buy what you want? For example, I’ve been researching laptops and sometimes the only way to find out about the products is to avoid the vendor web site and go to a review site instead. Bad strategy for the initial vendor in mind, ‘cos the review site introduces all sorts of other models for consideration and you start to see a pattern from reading customer reviews (hint to Sony – I think you need to address your apparent customer service problems…)

Sample culprit: Toshiba

Type in www.toshiba.com. Get to a home page with a screenshot telling me they are ‘committed to people, committed to the future.’ Lovely. Click on ‘Products and Services’. Presented with a page listing the various products and services. Click on ‘Tablet PCs’. At this point, I’d like to see a list of available Tablet PCs to start reviewing which one I’d like… What I get is a search box (no drop down list, assumes you know the model number I guess) or 4 options: Home/Home Office, Small/Medium Business, Enterprise, Government/Education. Toshiba should try reading ‘What customers want‘. If I click on Home/Home Office, I get offered various links organised under Computers, Accessories, Projects, DVD store and Electronics. Listed under Computers is ‘Notebooks’ and ‘TabletPCs’. Now, let’s see, I’ve already clicked on Tablet PCs once, so why do I now have to do it again? I click on Tablet PCs and am finally presented with a page listing the different TabletPC models. If I click on Small/Medium Business, I get the same page as Home/Home Office, but without the DVD store and Electronics list. If I click on Enterprise, I can find out info about ‘Corporate Direct’ and have 3 links to choose from: ‘computers’, ‘accessories’, and ‘projectors’. So I have to click on Computers, that presents a page with 2 links – notebooks and TabletPCs, I click on TabletPC and, lo and behold, finally get to the page listing the TabletPC models. If I select Government/Education, it’s the same painful process as for Enterprise, except ‘Community’ info replaces ‘Corporate Direct’.

Hint to Toshiba – fix your Products & Services page. At the moment, if you click any option listed under ‘Computer Systems and Digital Products’, you get presented with the damn same page – select from one of 4 options: Home/Home Office, Small/Medium business etc. none of which reflect what your potential customer expected when clicking on ‘TabletPCs’, ‘Notebooks’, or whatever…

And Toshiba is far from the only culprit. HP has the same crazy demographic method. I wanted to check out the current iPaq range (my beloved iPaq 4150 is nearly 3 years old now so maybe it’s time to see what new toys are available). Go to http://www.hp.com. Big fat menu on the right for demographics (click on home/home office, small/medium business…) But in small print below the irrelevant advert image is ‘Handhelds and calculators’. Click on it and, lo and behold, 2 links – PDAs for home/home office, and PDAs for business. Click on home/home office, now have another 2 links – iPaq Pocket PCs and iPaq+phone+camera. Click on iPaq Pocket PCs and finally get a list of 3 iPaqs. Then have to go back and click on iPaq+phone+camera to see those models of iPaqs (hint: some people may not have decided beforehand on whether to take the phone option or not). Go back and back again and click on PDAs for Business and, surprise surprise, there are some different models listed here. For some reason, HP has decided home/home office users don’t travel and hence don’t need to be shown the GPS editions… Doh!!!!!! Why would you try and limit your potential sales?

Even the well designed sites manage to cock up at some part of the process. Sony has a great site for viewing their notebooks. Simple and clean, few clicks required to be presented with the full choice of models. But try and buy one… well that’s another matter entirely for those of us who do not reside in the USA (I’m in the UK). You can view the laptop and simply click the orange button to add it to your cart. Only when you get to the shipping stage of checkout do you discover it is only applicable to addresses within the USA. Cancel out and go back to the home page and, whilst it does say ‘Sony USA’ there is no obvious link on either http://sonystyle.com or http://sony.com to switch to the international site. So off we go to Google to locate the UK site (http://sony.co.uk). The site design isn’t quite as good but still only takes a few clicks to get to the page about laptops. Find the slightly different version (I was looking at the Vaio TX range) but now I have to click the ‘buy online’ button, which takes me to a new site (Sony Europe) where I now have to re-navigate through the options again to get to the Vaio TX, different options to the UK site but hey ho, I can finally choose the laptop and actually buy it if I want to… except I’m not sure I want to anymore, having read the customer reviews criticising support.

I wandered through various vendor sites and all bar 1 suffered from these sorts of problems – they all made it difficult to review/compare products and difficult/impossible to purchase if you lived outside the USA. The one exception: Apple. On the Apple site, it is easy to review/compare products. On the home page, the last option on the menu is ‘Where to buy’ that provides links to the international online stores. The only improvement would be to make it more obvious – if you are reviewing a product and click to buy, add a button on the cart for ‘international purchases’ and then take your cart automatically to your appropriate online store.

I can’t stress enough that these 3 examples are by no means unique and are in fact better than an awful lot of other sites out there. If organisations still haven’t mastered the basics of simple Web 1.0 technologies for presenting content and allowing people to buy stuff, there’s no point getting giddy and excited about the potential from adopting Web 2.0 stuff…