ONLINE, January 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.
|Despite the concerns a few years ago over the retun on Internet investmetns, there's great excitement over intranets, extranets, and cost cutting through Web-based customer service.|
Who knows what changes the future holds for the Net and its teeming masses? But we can gain some insights into that future by looking a bit at the trends of the past year and the beginning rumbling of upcoming innovations.
First in the "e"s of online business is ecommerce. Commercial transactions of all kinds moved online. Consumer transactions have been but one of the major components of ecommerce. Despite concerns with transmitting credit card information over the Internet, consumers have flocked to the Net. Amazon.com has had one big piece of that pie, but it is far from the only retail ecommerce business.
The movement of retail to the Net has brought along the sobriquet of etailing (although the term may not catch on as much as ecommerce has). With millions of Internet users and a global audience, small businesses and individuals can reach out and sell almost anything to a huge audience. The investment necessary to set up an online storefront is almost negligible compared to the cost to open a physical storefront or establish a mail order center.
The many auction sites provide a means to sell individual items without even the investment necessary for an online storefront. The popularity of auction sites like eBay can be seen from the creation of similar auction sections on Yahoo! and Amazon.com.
While the retail realm is firmly ensconced with the general portals and its shopping components continue to grow steadily, the business-to-business ecommerce activity has given rise to specialized, vertical portals. Rather than focusing on all subject areas for all audiences, a vertical portal is designed to provide access to information and Web sites within a specific industry sector or targeted toward a specific audience.
For example, Machine Tools Online (http://www.machinetoolsonline.com) offers technical information on metal cutting and metal forming, a buyers' guide, product information, discussion forums, and a machine tool search engine that can be used to build spreadsheets of machine specifications from different manufacturers.
Auctions have moved into the business-to-business ecommerce realm as well. A site, such as Farms.com, offers online auctions for agricultural commodities and other goods related to the business of farming. By bringing together buyers and sellers, from around the globe, a vertical portal site like Farms.com fills an important role for the industry. As it gets better known within the industry, users will come directly to it rather than a general portal.
Vertical portals can be built for specific segments of the general public as well as within industry sectors. For example, Fashionmall. com is a vertical portal built for the consumer looking for brand name clothing. Fashiondex Online (http://www.fashiondex.com, on the other hand, serves the fashion industry with trade show listings, contractor and manufacturing directories, and publications. Both kinds of vertical portals have been growing in number and depth this past year, and look likely to continue that growth into the year 2000.
First of all, as with most Net searches, none of the current crop is comprehensive. How could they be? When anyone can set up an online storefront, various shops will be coming and going quickly on the Net. How could a shopping search engine keep up with all of them? Typically, a shopping search engine will only search a few major etailers. Some just search their own stores, but give the impression of comparing a larger number of retail options. Others are starting to expand to include retail, used, and auction sites.
As they get more sophisticated, they not only compare the product price, but shipping and delivery charges as well. DealPilot.com is an example of this recent change. Formerly known as Acses and just functioning as a book search engine, DealPilot.com has now expanded into music and movies as well. On the book side, it has also expanded to cover American, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish books. After finding an item, a user enters its delivery location and currency, and DealPilot. com presents a table of results that includes the online seller, price, discount, shipping charge, and delivery time.
This kind of comparison makes total price comparisons much easier. However, it still does not include searches of every available Net purchasing point. On the book side, for example, it does not include auction sites or used book services.
The other effect of shopping search engines is that their rise will likely cause retailers to change their tactics. Any automated spider that gathers information can be fooled. If online store "A" finds its prices rank consistently higher than the others, it could drop its prices. Or it could change its policies so that it has a very low shipping cost, but add some other extra fee that would not necessarily be reported. Store "B" might raise its shipping rates, but not make it obvious to the shopping search engine spider. For these reasons, be sure to always verify the information on the actual vendor's site.
Along with more domain name registrars comes a greater possibility that the new top level domains proposed back in 1997 may finally go live sometime in the new year. Only time will tell which of the proposed new top level domains will be used. Some of the suggestions include .arts, .shop, .store, .news, and .sex. Check on the Web site for the Domain Name Supporting Organization (http://www.dnso.org) of The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (http://www.icann.org) for current details on these proposals.
Yahoo! acquired GeoCities, the free home page site. Not only did this add another user service to Yahoo!'s large collection of such services, but it combined two of the most often viewed Web properties in cyberspace. Disney bought Infoseek and then formed the Go.com company out of Infoseek and the Buena Vista Internet Group.
Excite was acquired by @Home, the broadband Internet access provider, thus assuring a broadband strategy for Excite's growth. Meanwhile, in January, Compaq announced spinning off AltaVista to form its own company and then six months later, CMGI bought the majority stake in AltaVista.
With all this corporate level changing of hands and ownership going on, there was even more movement on the database and information side of the search engines. Excite, which used to provide the primary database content on the search pages for Netscape and AOL was completely replaced at both. Netscape moved to a combination of the Open Directory and Google. AOL replaced Excite with an Inktomi database. Meanwhile, Microsoft moves in the opposite direction, dropping its Inktomi database on MSN Search in favor of AltaVista. Lycos and the Lycos-owned HotBot both dropped their other directories and switched to the Open Directory.
While Microsoft took several months between announcing the switch and implementing it, some of the other changes happened almost overnight. What Yahoo! began in the summer of 1998 with its switch from AltaVista to Inktomi, its competitors continued in 1999. The overall search interface may look the same, but the underlying databases are not. Does the general Internet searcher even notice the changed database? Since these databases are all constantly changing anyway, the majority of Net users probably never notice the difference. When that's the case, future database changes may happen anytime that a company decides there is a better, cheaper, or otherwise more attractive database to switch to.
The expansion of domain name registrars may lead to lower prices and more domain names. If new top level domains become available, there will be greater flexibility in domain names. However, that could also lead to more confusion about addresses. Already, companies buy up companyname.com, companyname.net, and companyname.org. Would they then also start snapping up companyname. store and companyname.shop? If these top level domains are commonly adopted, it could make guessing an organization's URL much more difficult. On the other hand, it could also lead to a better differentiation of Web sites if the newer top level domains are applied consistently.
The portals and search engines will change continually. The major portals are likely to expand services and shopping opportunities while still trying to improve search relevance for common searches. Meanwhile, Fast or Northern Light may become the researcher's search engines of choice. Through all the changes, the Net is bound to change, grow, and become increasingly more integrated into the information universe.
Greg R. Notess (firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.notess.com/) is a Reference Librarian at Montana State University.
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