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Examples of Successful, Tightly Focused Web Sites

Selling Mexican Food Online: MexGrocer.com

MexGrocer.com is an online extension of the U.S. Division of HERDEZ, one of Mexico's leading wholesale grocery distributors. The site doesn't have any news or information on it that doesn't directly describe products it sells except for recipes that use products it sells and occasional bits of information about restaurants that buy wholesale from MexGrocer.com (see Figure 1–1). Every page, and almost every word on every page, is devoted to selling Mexican food products either directly or indirectly.

Figure 1-1Figure 1–1 MexGrocer.com home page.

MexGrocer.com is a sterling example of a site that sells effectively, with just enough non-sales information mixed in to make it worth a few moments' reading time even if you aren't interested in buying any Mexican food products today. Perhaps you'll bookmark it and come back to buy something another time. If you enjoy Mexican food, chances are that you will become a MexGrocer.com customer sooner or later.

Delivering Information Online: Wired News

Wired News (www.wired.com) is at the opposite end of the spectrum from MexGrocer.com. It's a pure news site, supported entirely by advertising.

Wired News makes no direct attempt to sell anything to its readers. All it sells are ads to advertisers. Friends who work for Wired News say it is consistently profitable. It has a small staff and a large readership, and these two factors are the keys to running a profitable ad-supported news or information Web site.

The fact that Wired News is not tied directly to anyone who manufactures or sells anything is a big point in its favor, and helps it to gain and keep its readers' trust. News sites tied closely to manufacturers, and news sections on ecommerce sites, are inherently suspect. If General Motors owned Road & Track magazine, nobody would be surprised if the Corvette was always the top-rated sports car, but no one would believe Road & Track ratings, either.

MSNBC (www.msnbc.com) is partly owned by Microsoft. Slate (www.slate.com), the online magazine, is a purely Microsoft-owned property. They both suffer from the perception that they are always going to go a little easy on Bill Gates and may be a tad harder on Windows competition (such as the Linux operating system) than other news outlets. Even though I personally believe Microsoft has done a good job of leaving both MSNBC and Slate alone to report the news without any corporate interference, there is always going to be doubt in their online audience members' minds about how fairly MSNBC and Slate treat news about Microsoft.

News published directly on a corporate, sales-oriented Web site is even more suspect. There is nothing wrong with publishing news about the company itself or any new products or services it is offering, but would you believe "news" about warehouse operations and material handling published on a forklift manufacturer's Web site? Probably not. If it had taken the same space and devoted it directly to selling forklifts, it would have more credibility—and would probably sell more forklifts.

The beauty of the Internet, in many eyes, is that almost anything can be published freely on it without interference from editors or restrictive governments. For people using the Internet for legitimate business purposes, this freedom means that their online message may be taken with more skepticism than it would be if it were delivered to consumers in a newspaper or on television, which is not a good thing. When a character named Alex Chiu (www.alexchiu.com) touts "immortality devices" on his Web site, and even achieves a certain measure of online notoriety by doing so even though there is no medical evidence that his devices work, a company selling legitimate, medically-approved health aids through a Web site that may show up in search engine listings near or even next to Chiu's must be extra-conscious of public perception, and extra-careful to be so truthful that no sensible person confuses its product claims with those made by hucksters like Chiu.

Perhaps all the material handling industry news on our hypothetical forklift company's site is entirely honest, but the perception problem is still there. In general, it is best to avoid any action online that might cause your credibility to be questioned, including trying to mix news and sales too closely together. It's better to stick to one or the other instead of trying to do both.

Pure Ecommerce: NoteTab

Eric Fookes of Geneva, Switzerland, has been selling a piece of software called NoteTab online since 1995. NoteTab is commonly recognized as one of the finest (and least expensive) Windows HTML and text editors around. It is available only as a download through www.notetab.com. Fookes Software is privately held, quite small, and consistently profitable. Besides NoteTab, it sells several other programs and a few screensaver photo galleries, but NoteTab is the company's star offering. This is an extremely focused company, and its NoteTab Web site reflects this focus (see Figure 1–2). The only news it carries is about new or updated Fookes Software products. From beginning to end, this site is about selling NoteTab, and it does its job very, very well.

Figure 1-2Figure 1–2 The NoteTab main page is no thing of beauty, but it delivers a powerful sales message.

No one would call this site great art. But does it need to be anything other than what it is? It has all the basics in place. It's well-placed in most search engines, and the NoteTab program is listed prominently in all popular Windows software and shareware directories, which makes it even easier to find than if it were listed only in search engines. As far as I know, Fookes has never run a paid ad or solicited venture capital. He wrote a good piece of software, and he has kept updating it and adding useful features since day one. He gives away a "Light" version of NoteTab for free, and sells the "Pro" version at a price so low—$19.95—that hardly anyone who needs this kind of product can afford not to buy it. Fookes has no shipping costs; all his software is downloadable online. He outsources credit card processing and site hosting so he can concentrate on his software. This is a "dream" Internet business in almost every way.

Of course, to start a business just like this one you had better be an excellent programmer who writes a piece of software that is one of the best—if not the best—of its kind. Or you had better have a similarly excellent product or service of some sort, and sell it as cleanly as Fookes sells NoteTab.

Online Community: Slashdot

The idea of allowing Web users to post directly on your site, with other users then adding comments to the original posts, seems like a "no brainer" money machine on the surface. Instead of paying high salaries to writers and editors, you get a site filled with interesting material for free. Newspaper "letters to the editor" pages are always one of a paper's most-read features, so it seems obvious that the vox populi's popularity would transfer both easily and profitably to the Internet.

Merchants—at least merchants who haven't tried to run one— often seem to view company-sponsored online communities as places where happy customers can post glowing product reviews. Computer hardware and software vendors dream of using online communities as a way to cut customer support costs, envisioning experienced users happily helping new users learn how to use the latest piece of hardware or figure out how to get the most from their newest software release.

Managing a large-scale, wide-open community discussion site is a long-hours, high-sweat job. Slashdot (www.Slashdot.org), one of the world's largest and best-known discussion sites (see Figure 1–3), has a total of 12 people working on it full-time. Half of them are programmers and sysadmins who spend most of their time trying to protect Slashdot's comment system from incursions by spammers, copyright violators, and others whose hobby is posting off-topic, obscene, or potentially actionable material. There is no shortage of these life forms on the Internet, and if you host a popular discussion forum, they will find you and bother you sooner or later. Count on it. Not only do these posts annoy legitimate readers, but some can lead to legal action. Slashdot routinely receives requests to have material removed, and has been forced to remove several readers' posts because of copyright infringement, and to respond to other allegations through its parent company's lawyer. So if you plan to operate an "open" online discussion board, in addition to the cost of editors, moderators, and sysadmins, you had better put aside a substantial budget reserve for legal defense.

Figure 1-3Figure 1–3 Slashdot receives about two million pageviews on the average weekday.

An early, essay-oriented Web site that tried to foster open online discussion, David Hudson's ReWired (www.rewired.com), closed its discussion area after it got taken over by "script kiddie" hackers who used ReWired's message boards as a place to exchange information about illegally breaking into computer networks.

Even worse, perhaps, than a discussion board that gets taken over by undesirables, is one that stays empty week after week. There are thousands of these out there, attached to all kinds of Web sites, standing in mute testimony to their owners' failure to attract the eager hordes of intelligent commentators they obviously expected when they first put up their sites. It's fairly easy to set up an online discussion board; there are plenty of free or low-cost software packages around you can use to do it. But then comes the hard work of nurturing discussions, which is a continuing, labor-intensive task. Sure, Slashdot gets thousands of reader posts daily now, but when it first started it only got a few. Like many "overnight" Web phenomena, it was around and slowly building long before it got any mass media attention, known and inhabited only by a small group of fans who helped define its tone. At the beginning, Slashdot was a hobby site, not a commercial venture, which also helped. Posters didn't feel they were giving away free content to a profit-making corporation, just speaking their minds to others like themselves. A strict focus on leading-edge science and technology and their effects on our culture also helped build Slashdot's popularity; this topic-specific world view gave the site a defined rallying point around which all discussions could revolve, and it was one that was especially well-suited for the technologists and computer science students who made up a majority of Slashdot's early users.

Slashdot, and online discussions in general, deserve a section of their own—and you will find one later in this book. But you'll want to think long and hard before you try to build an online discussion area of any kind yourself, especially if you want it to be part of a site whose main purpose is to sell goods or services. Amazon.com can handle uncomplimentary book reviews because Amazon's income isn't tied to the sale of any one book. A vendor that sells many different makes and models of digital cameras may be willing to post unfavorable reviews of a few of the items it carries, but sooner or later a user is going to ask, "If that particular product is so lousy, why do you carry it?"

This is when, suddenly, the reality of running an open discussion forum attached to an ecommerce site sinks in. Should the vendor remove that dubious post and risk being called a censor who allows only sweetness and light? Should a vendor site's discussion area display only posts that are approved by an employee before they are made visible to the public? That is, should vendors have only "moderated" discussions? Many news sites check submissions and post only those they feel are appropriate in an attempt to enforce some minimal level of propriety, just like a newspaper's "letters" page. Even Slashdot, which allows almost anyone to post almost anything, and doesn't prescreen posts at all, has a moderation system that makes some reader comments easier to see than others.

Think long and hard about the ramifications and pitfalls of running an online community before you try to start one of your own, either as a standalone venture or as part of a news, ecommerce, or promotional site. In the end, especially after you've read the rest of this book, you may decide you are better off avoiding this particular Web sub-genre altogether.

Brochureware: Robin's Limousine

Figure 1–4 illustrates my own, original "Robin's Limousine" Web site (see Figure 1–4). Don't try the email address or phone number on it. They are obsolete. The site itself has now been replaced by a slightly more sophisticated one, and my old friend and partner, Charles McCoy, now runs the business while I write full-time. I'm using this old snapshot as an example of a site that had no interactive features whatsoever, but was such a successful advertisement that a year after we put it up, Charles and I stopped doing any other paid advertising. We even pulled out of the Yellow Pages.

Figure 1-4Figure 1–4 The original "million dollar" Robin's Limousine Web site.

Web designers and consultants often sneer at simple sites like this as "brochureware." They say this kind of site does nothing that couldn't be done just as well on paper. They're right. But often the objective of a small or local business's Web site is exactly the same as that of a printed brochure: to get the potential customer to pick up the phone and call. The Internet, in this case, is being used as nothing but a means of delivering a brochure to someone who might not otherwise find out about the business. The actual sale takes place over the phone or in person, depending on the kind of business. My little limo Web site, which cost literally nothing to make (aside from a few hours of my time) and was hosted by my ISP as part of an "unlimited Internet access" package that cost $16.95, total, per month when I first signed up for it, has generated at least $1 million in business since it first went up in 1994. This is an amazing return on investment, but one that other small business owners can easily duplicate.

One of the two big reasons my limo site was so successful was its simplicity. While my competitors were adding glitzy features to their sites that either made them take forever to download through dialup modems or made them unviewable through many Web browsers, mine was easily viewed with any kind of computer or browser through any connection. The other reason the site succeeded so well was careful placement in search engines and (free) limo industry and local online business directory listings. Any business, of any size, should try to make its Web site as easy to view—and as easy to find—as possible. I am continually shocked when I see major company Web sites that work correctly on only one or two types of computer operating systems or Web-browsing software, and are not listed appropriately in search engines and directories. You would think they'd know better. But apparently they don't. Oh, well.

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