A-Clue.Com
(formerly "A Clue...to Internet Commerce")
by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume II, No. XIX
For the Week of May 11, 1998
 

This Week's Clue: Lessons from Falling Loaves 

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)  

It's the Database, Stupid 

Am I Just Too Suspicious? 

Can I Be A Bit Stupider, Please? 

Clued-in, Clueless

This Week's Clue: Lessons from Falling Loaves 

My bread machine crapped out recently. So I went to the Web, then I went to the mall, and I compared the two channels. 

I learned QVC has done a fine job integrating its own database with major engines like AltaVista. A search under "comparing breadmakers" turned up this page  listing features of the breadmakers they have in stock, easy to manipulate by clicking around and using the "back" button. The prices were good, presentation was amiable (and quick), and I've already used their checkout. 

QVC was pushing two brands - Regal  and Funai's Breadman. I then visited a Best Buys  store (not the Web site - a real store) and found two different brands on their shelves - Toastmaster and Oster. I also learned I'd asked the wrong questions on the Web. It seems breadmakers now double as dessert makers and toaster-ovens. I don't know how I would have learned that just by going online. Maybe from checking out the bread forums on CountryLife, which has over 1,000 messages posted in the last year on breadmakers alone, all hooked (individually) into AltaVista. The biggest disappointment - Consumer Reports  still doesn't have a pay-per-view function on its reviews, so most of this site remains off-limits to the public, unless someone posts an excerpt on their private home page

What else did I learn? While lots of sites sell breadmakers, including some that claim to be liquidators  or specialty shops  what really makes the difference between browsing and buying is the ease-of-use of the merchant's database. The more routes there are to querying a database quickly, so you can see relevant data, the better service your store provides. A database has your store's "shelves," after all. Retailers since Frank Woolworth have known that the faster you can get items off the shelf, the more likely they'll make it to the checkout counter. Second, price matters enormously. If you have a specialty shop, you'll need to offer tons of content in order to generate the loyalty you need for even a slight premium. The best way, I maintain, for such sites to survive is through couponing - convince stores to give your buyers discounts, and your site an equivalent amount of cash, for sales you steer to them. So far, few have picked up on that Clue and I wonder why - let us know what you think

What can you learn? For consumer products, Web distribution is devolving toward those sites that turn big (or reliable) volumes. Databases are key - preference databases, forum databases, product databases. Look at this from the user's perspective. The easier he (or she) finds it to learn what's available, what others think, and what their own preferences mean in terms of product, the more likely they'll come back. The best price helps a lot, too. Selling image, on the other hand, is proving difficult online. Unlock that and you have competition for the big database. 
 



SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion) 

We're working on it. When it came out of my laptop, A-Clue.Com was an inline attachment to an email sent with Netscape 4.0. Now it's the body of a message sent through a Revnet Groupmaster (http://www.revnet.com) email server operated by Audette Media. If you save that message to your hard drive and view it in a browser, it should pop-up in all its glory. (If not, let me know.) You can now subscribe (or cancel your subscription) automatically by emailing us at a-clue@list.mmgco.com . If you don't get service, of course, feel free to drop me a note at dana.blankenhorn@att.net. And we want your feedback  as well, always. In time you'll also see an ad in this space (or very near it) to defray our higher costs. (You won't mind, will you?) 

As usual, I'm also talking to lots of new publishers, and you can be one of them. Remember that it's Journalism -- checking the news, calling people, listening carefully, writing on deadline -- which keeps the Clues coming, although I also handle consulting and commercial writing (ask about those rates via email). If you're looking for excellent work, as found in Atlanta Computer Currents, at PlugIn Datamation or in Net Marketing magazine, among other locations, don't wait for the email -- give me a call at 404-373-7634. 

And now back to our show... 


It's the Database, Stupid  

While working on the lead story this week, I used all the major search engines. (It was just a coincidence that Lycos was teaming with AT&T and Netscape was teaming with Excite at the same time.) Here's my Clue from all that. Forget all this stuff about "portals." What makes a search engine effective is the service its database provides. The difference between a useful 10-minute session and an hour wasted is found in the performance of your search site. 

Using the same search term, "comparing breadmakers," I got a wide variety of responses. Some engines urped up just a few, useless  hits. Others spat out thousands  of useless hits for me to page through, and often repeated links to the same sites endlessly - Webmasters have learned a lot about manipulating the engines. One  gave me both too-much and too-little, thanks to an index that's fairly useless in free-text searches and its link with AltaVista. 

The winner was Infoseek  - their stock is down because they haven't been willing to play the alliance dance. But no matter -- its top links  were relevant. (I'd asked for comparisons, not breadmakers.) Infoseek also found a number of merchants  the others hadn't found, on the first few screens, where it counts. Infoseek was also the only engine to find the top of the CountryLife Breadmakers' board, allowing only a few individual messages to sneak through. 

Inertia is powerful, but it's not forever. When push comes to shove (and it eventually will) those who stuck to their knitting will be rewarded with survival. Search engines also make money by licensing their software, and services, to other, smaller sites, and reviews are read closely by site operators. If Infoseek can make it to that shakeout, it will be a winner. 

Am I Just Too Suspicious?  

In the early 90s 7th Level  was among the first to bring star power to the computer business. With CDs like "Tuneland," starring Howie Mandel, with an animation technology called Top Gun, and with music producer Bob Ezrin as chairman, the company drew celebrities like Linda Ronstadt to its Comdex parties. 

But the CD business didn't turn out the way 7th Level wanted it to. Multimedia became standard in all software, kids' programs couldn't make back their costs, and the company was headed to the rocks until last November when it announced a merger with Pulse Entertainment, a Web site development outfit. Now the CDs are gone, and Top Gun is being pitched as a "low bandwidth" solution to Web animation. 

I have no idea why I'm suspicious of all this, but I am. Maybe it's the publicity build-up, maybe it's the zooming stock price, maybe it's chairman Donald Schupak's long hair. Maybe it's Microsoft's Liquid Motion, which allows delivery of Web animations without plugins, uses the Microsoft Office (FrontPage) interface, and comes with a library of content. Maybe it's just a gut feeling. I just have a sneaking suspicion insiders will profit and investors won't, as the goodwill from 7th Level's star power gets spent. 

Can I Be A Bit Stupider, Please? 

MSNBC didn't mean to be funny, but their Brock Meeks' story  on artist Mattison Fitzgerald made my day. 

The story is that Fitzgerald  has launched a group called Protect Artists It's Not Shareware (PAINS). Her idea is to publicize the fact that you shouldn't be grabbing digitized pictures and re-purposing them on your Web site while the artists who created them go hungry. While information wants to be free art is precious, Fitzgerald says, so she wants to figure out a way to profit from her work on the Web, either through licensing or one-time fees. 

But the story also includes an example of Ms. Fitzgerald's art, an abstract jpeg image. Click your right mouse-button over this thing, and look at the commands. They include "save image" and "use as wallpaper." Ms. Fitzgerald's point was that this image was being "pirated" and used as a "net postcard" without her permission. Its online publication by MSNBC made the process simpler, and made things worse for her. The answer to Fitzgerald's problem lies in technology - I won't speculate on the answer to Meeks'. 

Clued-in, Clueless 

Clued-in this week is Thomas Warfield . He's found a way to make a pretty good living starting with something Microsoft gave away years ago, solitaire. He put hundreds of versions into a shareware program (it times out after 30 days), and found another shareware author, NorthStar Solutions, to handle his transaction processing. By offering a simple, straightforward description for his site, he usually pops-up at the top of most searches under the word "solitaire." "I've been growing 15-20% a month for two years," he writes. "The startup cost is very low. Plus the growth of email gives shareware authors an excellent means of technical support." He recently decided to quit his job and devote his full-time to a new version and a publicity campaign. 

Clueless is Service Merchandise . The key to this warehouse store was always its in-store database. Guess what's not connected to its Web site? The design is obscure, the links to search engines are virtually non-existent. They buy ads that don't effectively lead to the merchandise users want when they click. (If I search on "breadmakers," don't take me to the "appliances" page.) Two years ago I would have been satisfied with a site like this, but now... 
 

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