Welcome to the real world

No longer just a playground for anoraks, the World Wide Web has finally grown up. And that means business.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The World Wide Web is getting serious. A year ago, it was still little more than a sophisticated plaything - most of its sites were put together by people who wanted to have a bit of fun, or maybe to share their knowledge about caving, palindromes or railway liveries.

Now, business sites are coming up rapidly on the inside. Dozens of new corporate sites appear every day. They range from the 1,100-page monster run by General Motors (http://www.gm.com) to the half-dozen pages of Elizabeth Botham, master bakers of Whitby (http://www.octacon.co.uk/bothams/).

More important than the number of new business sites is the thought that has gone into them. In the past, most were put together by IT people keen to play with this intriguing new technology (it is remarkably easy to put together a plausible Web page - see Stephen Pritchard's article on page 18). But there was no great strategic thinking behind what went into the site: a few figures, some photos and maybe the odd graph would do.

Recently, though, marketing people have noticed the Web, and have looked for ways to make it generate income. That should be easy - a Web site costs almost nothing to create and can theoretically be seen by 30 million people around the world. The advertiser's dream, surely?

Well, no. For a start, why should anyone look at your site rather than any other - is not a needle in a haystack eminently locatable in comparison? Second, does advertising on the Web work, and how should it be organised? Third, is advertising actually the best use of a Web site - is it perhaps better as a source of information, or as a point of sale?

The first point is the trickiest. It has been tackled by big companies by cross-advertising. Look at a printed or poster Guinness, Benetton or Vauxhall ad and you will see a Web address (starting http://) tucked away somewhere.

The best bet for smaller companies is to set up signposts within the Web itself. Search engine organisations (Internet indexing systems) - such as Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com) need to be paid or persuaded to mention them. Most Internet users keep a "bookmark" that will take them immediately to the Yahoo site, or perhaps to one of the local directories that are now springing up. In the UK, Global Online Directory (http://www.god.co.uk - see Dorothy Walker's article, page 12), Yellow Pages' Yell (http://www.yell.co.uk) and Planet Internet (http://www.uk.pi.net) all aim to become much-bookmarked sites in British computers.

"Creatives" in advertising departments or agencies have been having great fun producing Web sites, though it is too early to say how effective they are. Companies selling to the youth market seem to agree that the last thing they should do is to sell directly. Snickers (http://www.snickers.com) concentrates on the Euro 96 football tournament; the only product plug is a small chocolate bar in the corner of the screen. It makes heavy use of teenage humour, and offers surfers the chance to "win a wicked trip" - an attempt to keep up with its target's argot.

Other sites are more sophisticated, and make heavy use of the latest software. Benetton (http://www.benetton.com) requires you to download Quicktime VR before you can visit its "gallery".

But few people believe advertising is going to be the real driver of Net income. Benetton, for example, sees its site as being an advertising medium only in part. Its press offices spend much of their time sending out glossy brochures, mostly to students. Now they will simply tell them to look at the Web site - it should soon pay for itself in saved printing and postage costs.

The use of the Web as a distribution mechanism is potentially exciting, both for businesses and individuals. Instead of sending out annual reports, companies will be able to publish them on the Web. A manager who wants to send a detailed drawing to a colleague on the other side of the world will simply scan it into a computer, and tell his colleague to download it from a Web page (cheaper and better quality than a fax). Instead of sending pictures of your newborn child to friends and relatives a around the world, why not put it on a Web page and simply tell them where to look (subscribers to AOL and CompuServe, and many Internet service providers, are given space free)? The objection is that they may not have an Internet connection. But they will, they will.

Then of course there is the Web as a giant store. Visitors to Botham's pages can order speciality bread directly through the Internet, while any number of retailers are selling their products online. The biggest site on the Web is run by a scientific equipment supplier - see Steve Homer's article, page 12. Retailing is not yet big business - Argos said it had sold 22 items in the first nine months it was on the Web. But it seems unlikely there will be mass desertions. The perception that the Internet is insecure is slowly being eroded (see Nick Rosen's article, page 16), and of course thousands of new people are going online every day.

That is not to say the Web will not continue to be a fun place for cavers to describe their delvings, or amateur poets to publish their amateur poems, or HM Treasury to publish its Budget. But the Web's future can be regarded as secure only when it starts making it people money. Which should be soon.