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Bill Shatner is not enough

Users want more from the Web than hucksters looking for one-time sales. 3_1_1001.xml hed: Bill Shatner is not enough dek: Users want more from the Web than hucksters looking for one-time sales. blurb: Users want more from the Web than hucksters looking for one-time sales. number of pages:1 by James Mathewson

Last month we updated you on the prospects for widespread broadband adoption–what I call the supply side of the Internet equation. As everyone knows, the Internet is in a slump and no one knows when it will break out of it. I likened the Internet’s present slump to that of my baseball team–the Minnesota Twins, who exceeded everyone’s expectations until the All-Star Break and then fell flat. I thought the supply side of the Internet slump (and my team’s slump) would be temporary, but there are some real hurdles to overcome before broadband (and the young Twins) breaks out of its slump.

I also promised you an update on what I call the demand side of the Internet, aka the Web. This side, too, is mired in a slump, with dot-com companies falling like pop-ups and content sites struggling for revenue. I think the demand side is stronger than the supply side, though not as strong as the late-’90s hysteria suggested. That hysteria was based on a picture of the Web that is not close to reality at present: The Web is a place where you can find the information you need on any topic, find any product at the lowest possible price, and buy it without restrictions. While I believe that picture will resemble reality within five years, Web technology and best practices still have a long way to go before we get there.

Consider my recent experience at Priceline.com. I went to Priceline to see if I could get a good airfare for my annual spring family trip to the Florida Panhandle. I put a ridiculously low fare in and waited for a response, just to see how it worked. I scrolled down several screens in order to read through all the disclaimers and legalese explaining that I could not cancel or change an accepted booking, and clicked Accept. The site blinked and I was presented with the same screen with the Accept button. Thinking that Accept had not worked the first time, I clicked it again. Then I got an e-mail saying, “Congratulations, your offer has been accepted.” When I opened the e-mail, I found the offer was much higher than my original and was for the wrong airport. Apparently, when the site blinked, the counteroffer was presented several screens above the Accept button, and that was what I accepted when I clicked the second time.

Now I was in a battle with tech support, trying to undo my mistake. I could not, it turns out, but I was granted a one-time exception in which, in order to get the right airport, I had to accept a higher fare. In any event, I had no control over the times I would fly into or out of the airport, and I am now stuck with needing to leave my rental property at 4:00 a.m. to catch my flight–not at all what I wanted with my four-year-old son.

The moral of this story is that I will never use Priceline again. Though you can save money, you often have to deal with the worst flight times, or some other compromise like other airports or multiple layovers. And woe unto those who make a mistake in the forms; you can’t change orders no matter what. Some might say I got what I deserved. I believed the slick radio voice from Capt. Kirk himself and failed to do enough research into Priceline before making a transaction. OK, fair enough. But if I am a typical traveler, Priceline’s airfare service will never be hugely popular. I would rather spend an extra $100 to use a conventional travel agent in order to have some choice about my itinerary. And the forms (standard Microsoft forms) are not nearly user-friendly enough to have mass appeal.

Other travel sites offer more choice at higher fares than a travel agent would present. Here is one case in which you would think the Web would be a perfect venue for commerce, but it is not. I’m still waiting for the perfect travel site to come around, but they all involve compromises that make travel agents a necessity, and we’ve reviewed a lot of travel sites. And so it goes with a lot of e-commerce niches. With few exceptions (books, movies, CDs, and similar commodities), e-commerce vendors have failed to give users a compelling reason to develop any loyalty to their sites. Like Priceline, they might get a lot of one-time sales, but little repeat business until they can make the online shopping experience comparable to (or better than) the store or phone experience. And Web technology is a few years away from allowing for those kinds of experiences.

Until that time, the Web is mostly a venue for content. And, as a content venue, it has gone backward in the last year. It’s no secret that content sites have suffered from a horrible advertising market. As ad dollars have dried up and investors have spent their money elsewhere, content sites have either gone away or adopted new revenue models that compromise their integrity. Take search engines. Most people think that search portals like Yahoo! impartially rank or list articles relevant to users’ search queries. The fact is, in order to survive, most search engines won’t list content unless the original producer paid for the listing. The higher the payment, the better the placement. When we tried to get Yahoo! to list our site’s content, they wouldn’t even consider us without a $200 bribe. Actual search placement costs extra.

The result of this situation is that only a small percentage of the Web is even listed by the portals and most of it is buried deep within their listings. Still, nearly 90 percent of all content is accessed through the portals. So sites like ours are in an unenviable situation: We must pay to be listed, yet ad sales would never pay for the listings. Right now, the top 50 sites have the cash to list themselves on the other portals and, unless you were bookmarked on a million PCs before paid-for position became the norm, your numbers will only go down. Several very valuable sites are caught in this spiral, and the users who depend on them will eventually lose out on the information they provide.

When will the downward spiral on the content side break? When will the Web become compelling enough for users to demand better bandwidth, rather than accept what the Baby Bells and cable companies offer? When search portals start indexing impartially and providing more relevant results to users’ queries, that’s when. Paid-for position, like a hitch in a batter’s swing, will be a thing of the past as users demand more reliable information than they can get in print. E-commerce vendors will start providing the experiences users need to develop site loyalty. And, in about five years, the Internet will be the dominant medium on the planet. Hopefully, it won’t be five more years before the Twins are in another pennant chase.

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