Second site Loss of e-faith

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The Independent Culture
HAVE YOU TAKEN to the dog? Do you warm to the idea that a search engine can be like a faithful black labrador, clever enough to fetch and dumb enough to do it whenever you click your fingers? Or have your hackles started to rise at seeing websites like the Lycos labrador commercial advertised every time you turn on your television or open a paper? Do you growl angrily when you see yet another feature about twentysomethings who have become e- millionaires on the back of a half-baked notion and a craze for investing money in nothing?

This is all beginning to look disagreeably like the Eighties, but without the upward mobility for youths with estuary accents. Internet tubthumpers may object that some people will always moan about progress and success. But there are signs that the recent torrent of e-promotion and e-publicity is causing a backlash in the United States, even though the US is a nation with a faith in technology and an ecstatic vision of riches that borders on religious devotion. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, focus groups are losing their focus as they are bombarded with one dot- com ad after another. They're confused, and they're sceptical. "If I hear another ad on the radio, I'm going to go crazy," said one commentator. And he's the president of Yahoo! Inc.

To duck the backlash - and to differentiate themselves from every other dot, com and Harry - some Internet businesses are distancing themselves from their own medium. "Don't call us a dot-com," urged Sue Levin, of an outfit called "Our strategy is Lucy not- com." This entails the use of printed catalogues of women's exercise clothes, sent by snail mail. BigStar, an on-line video and DVD retailer, uses the UPS parcels service to deliver its goods. But it has mocked up a fake delivery fleet of its own, by paying for its logo to be painted on a couple of hundred trucks belonging to assorted businesses in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and San Francisco. The idea is to create the impression that it has a presence in the real world, out there on the old-fashioned streets.

Tricks like these may just work for businesses selling stuff that can be packed in cardboard, but the option isn't open to ventures offering purely electronic services. A Web search service like Lycos is a particularly odd marketing proposition, being virtual, free, and for most practical purposes indistinguishable from a dozen competitors. There's certainly room for growth, judging by recent Web logs for the Second Site pages: Lycos was responsible for 4 per cent of referrals from search services, while Yahoo! accounted for more than 40 per cent.

The television spots are intended to present Lycos as fast, easy and reliable, according to Ben Regensburger, vice-president of marketing for Lycos's European arm. Lycos is supposed to be "a sympathetic kind of partner". Hence the dog, also known as Lycos. The techies at Carnegie Mellon University who created Lycos, back in 1994, obviously never anticipated the need for a warm and cuddly public image. They named their facility after the Latin for wolf spider - which didn't even fit the Web metaphor, since the Lycosidae chase their prey, rather than net it.

Regensburger, who came to Lycos from Hugo Boss three months ago, sees no sign of a backlash in his focus groups. "I very much doubt that there will be one," he says. "There's too much interest at this stage." But other search services can also claim to be fast, easy and reliable. Our sympathy with them may be tested if they all start spilling into mainstream media in order to build their brands. After all, a search engine is a robot, not a Net traveller's best friend.

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