A fool's guide to finding your way on the Web
Once upon a time not so very long ago, businesspeople scoffed at the idea of installing fax machines and setting up 800 numbers. Such systems seemed indulgent, showy, simply a waste of money. In 1997 there's a new object of people's contempt: the Internet.
Indeed, if today's business world were divided into Internet haves and have-nots, the 'nots would rule. Last year a Dun & Bradstreet small-business survey found that just one in six business owners had E-mail. And that's the most common form of Internet use. This year the ratio shifted, but still, just one in four is on-line. And only 5% of those surveyed by Dun & Bradstreet consider the Internet a key technology that affects their business.
Many suggest that drawing such a conclusion is a huge mistake. Experts--and those who do use the Internet--warn that businesspeople will have to master that technology, and soon. Frequent users swagger with their information-access superiority. Small wonder, though, since they do have the capability to procure data that would make an Internet-illiterate competitor swoon.
Yet there's another side of the coin: it's possible to have too much information. "Net heads" often find themselves deluged by E-mail. And people taking a 10-minute "surf" of the Internet's most engrossing feature, the World Wide Web, often look up and discover that three hours have passed.
So a surprisingly large number of people are actually beating a fast retreat from the electronic frontiers. In the past year 9.3 million people who had taken a spin on the Internet at least once said they no longer considered themselves "current users," according to a survey by the Emerging Technologies Research Group, a division of the FIND/SVP research and consulting service in New York City. In his new book , Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (HarperEdge, 1997), David Shenk warns that information, once viewed as a tool, has now taken over people's lives.
Others pooh-pooh Shenk's notion that a crisis is at hand. "What may look like information overload is really just competitive advantage," says Seena Sharp, principal of Sharp Information Research, a business-information specialist in Hermosa Beach, Calif. "There are so many who don't know how to effectively get information from the Internet that those who do have a real advantage."
It makes sense to use the Internet--in part because it gives you a leg up on competitors, most of whom aren't on-line. But you must treat it as you would any potentially valuable activity--go in armed with technical know-how and a good sense of what you're hoping to find. To that end, numerous articles that attempt to list quality Web sites have been published. That can be helpful, but at best it's a piecemeal approach--about as efficient as a busy executive who tries to save time by answering only every third phone call. With millions upon millions of Web pages, many changing daily, even hourly, you need a philosophy, a strategy for getting solid facts fast.
Even with so many users focusing on the Internet, little conventional wisdom has emerged. So Inc. pressed a plethora of Web-literate business individuals to analyze their own habits to find out what works and what doesn't.
The following are suggestions on how to use the Internet, especially the World Wide Web, to build your business--for market research, competitor intelligence, even outsourcing. The goal is to learn the apparatus and keep the quality of information as high as possible, while avoiding a black hole of wasted time.
Take a Byte
Now is a good time to learn how to navigate the Internet. The longer you postpone the task, the more onerous it will seem, like waiting until adulthood to learn a foreign language. You can try to figure it out yourself, read a book, take a class, or have others train you. Deborah Hollander Schwartz, a publicist with Jaffe Associates, a Washington, D.C., firm offering marketing and communications consulting to those in the legal profession, found the perfect teacher--her 13-year-old son. She paid him $10 an hour.
"You'll be frustrated in the beginning," says information specialist Sharp. "You're going to be spending a lot of time figuring it out. You have to learn the shortcuts, and the only way to really learn is to do it."
Did You Hear the One About the Web Site That...
Once you know the basics, there's the matter of continuing education. Just as the landscape of your own industry evolves constantly, so does the Web. For staying current, jumping in and trying things no longer becomes time effective. A better solution is to consult others regularly.
Look for two kinds of people: the most technically advanced Internet users and the most passionate colleagues in your area of interest. The first group will save you time by briefing you on the latest technological advances. They can get to know your needs and keep an eye out for you. I've developed such a relationship with one fellow. When I see him, I review a list of questions that I've compiled, along with notes and intriguing clippings that I've collected regarding on-line developments.
The second category includes people who need to know the same things you do but who are way ahead on Web knowledge. They can provide excellent road maps to useful sites. Instead of chatting about family or the ball game, try batting around Web tips. I've collected tons of good information that way, such as the best sites for finding foreign companies' phone numbers and E-mail addresses, and for checking financials, the weather, and the news.
When It Comes to the Web, No Company Loves Misery
As Dorothy discovered in The Wizard of Oz, you might find the best things right at home. For example, Jaffe Associates has a weekly internal E-mail newsletter called Virtual News. Employees serve up Web tips, including ones on the sites they're most excited about. Similarly, engineers at Waid & Associates, an environmental- consulting firm in Austin, Tex., E-mail one another about great sites.
Ironically, the Internet has people searching the world for information when the best data can be found right across the hall. An ambitious solution is to link your company's computers so you can implement an intranet, a companywide information-management system set up on the Internet. After discovering that its engineers weren't even aware of relevant work already done by others right within company walls, Waid & Associates made plans to set up its own intranet.
You should approach the Internet just as you would anything else in your company--delegating tasks to colleagues who are well equipped to handle them. Many savvy businesspeople use Web-savvy middlemen and advisers whenever possible. The goal is to have someone else screen the raw information for you.
Keep It Simple
Plenty of people will drive one block for a quart of milk. Like a car, the Web can become a crutch, even an obstacle. I can spend a half hour typing data into airline-ticket booking sites like Travelocity and rooting around to decipher the rules and restrictions, only to learn that the desired flight isn't even available. Or I can call my travel agent, who, after a two-minute phone conversation, will get back to me with comparable offers.
"I use the Internet as a supplement, not a replacement," says Sharp. She recently researched so-called smart cards for a client and found a great deal of Web information about their specific use on college campuses, material so detailed that she'd never find its equal in trade journals covering the smart-card industry.
The more you use the Web, the more skilled you become at divining priceless on-line resources. You'll also better understand just what it is--and isn't--good for. The Web is getting better at providing information on, say, hotels and restaurants in specific cities and neighborhoods, with detailed descriptions and feedback from patrons and travelers. Financial sites and services also receive uniformly high marks, and access to governmental regulations and to registries handling patents and trademarks (patents.uspto.gov) are invaluable. The Web is tops for finding companies, products, and people--you can now type in just a name and locate someone anywhere in the United States, and sometimes the world. It's also terrific for printing out maps (www.mapquest.com) and ordering office supplies, publications, and almost anything else. The examples of Web superiority and efficacy go on and on.
No Thanks, Just Browsing
A few short years ago, using the Internet practically required a degree in electrical engineering. But now it's about as complicated as ordering Chinese food. When you explore the Web, you launch your forays from an on-screen desktop called a browser. Netscape Communications Corp.'s namesake program and Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer dominate the market with their handy consoles.
It's worth your while to master time-saving browser tricks. For example, many Web wanderers using Netscape's browser don't know about the Find button, which allows you to search a Web page for a particular word. This is especially important when your search engine turns up a long document, and you have no idea where the desired reference can be found. Another handy feature is the History option, which can be selected from the pull-down menus that are above the uniform resource locator (URL) address displayed on your browser. That option lets you quickly retrace your steps to previously viewed Web pages.
Ready to search? Now things get murkier.
"Search engines have a long way to go," says info-overload author David Shenk. At first these giant computers that sift and index millions of Web pages seem pretty amazing. You type in a concept--"marble," for example (say you're in the construction trade)--and up pop articles from trade journals, postings from engineers in Paraguay, and academic papers. But when you look carefully, you might see that you also got a band from Syracuse, N.Y., named "the Harribl Marbles" and a posting from someone who's complaining that his senator has just "lost his marbles." Then there's someone actually talking about Carrara marble, the famous Italian rock Michelangelo sculpted his David with, but that person is spouting absolute poppycock.
It's pretty haphazard stuff. If you want to use your time wisely, you can do one of the following things: (1) get somebody else, preferably someone whose time costs less than yours, to do your searching, or (2) set aside a bit of extra time while you're searching to learn the quirks of the various search engines. (Some, for example, rank their findings by the probability that the search met your stated needs: maybe it turned up "Carrara," but not "marble," or "Carrara" and "marble," but not with those words in close proximity. You can try the same search with a variety of engines and note which is best suited to each particular task.)
You'll probably feel a bit disoriented as you discover that even the experts who rate the effectiveness of search engines revise their conclusions on almost a weekly basis. But nevertheless, you're likely to find that by paying attention to the quirks and procedures of each search engine, you can dramatically improve your yield.
If you really want to stay on top of the engines, check out Search Engine Watch, a new site that provides soup-to-nuts coverage. You can learn how well each engine performed in tests, as well as average response times. Recently, HotBot has performed famously.
Dr. Livingstone's Site, I Presume
Before you launch a Web exploration, establish basic time-management rules and objectives. Otherwise you may find yourself lost in the wild.
"I look at the Internet as a large library," says consultant Schwartz. "You must be precise and clear about what you're looking for. The goal should be to go in, find what you're looking for, and get out." Ideally, that means planning before you log on. For example, you might set a 10-minute limit for a search. If you haven't found anything by then, go to a newsgroup (more on newsgroups later) and post a message asking for guidance.
You might also want to establish whether--and how far--you will venture off on tangents. Often Web searches produce unexpected and useful, if slightly off-target, material.
Shenk advocates defining your searches as specifically as possible--the more search terms you include, the narrower the result. If you're looking for Honest Bob's Ford Escort and Bronco Dealership, and you don't want the Bronco Escort Agency, you must be as specific as possible, using what is known as Boolean logic: you'd type "Escort NEAR Bronco AND Honest Bob's AND Ford NOT champagne," for example.
If you find yourself mumbling four-letter words of frustration, sometimes it's best to adopt a low-tech approach for a moment. Just consult an old favorite: the yellow pages (although now you can search the yellow pages of different regions simultaneously on the Web).
Some warn against spending much time browsing at all. "General browsing is not the way to find information," says Ronnie Franke, a senior project manager at Waid & Associates. He flips through publications at night, noting recommended Web sites. The next morning, at work, he quickly checks them out, "bookmarking" (or saving the Web addresses of) the good ones.
Industry newsletters and magazines publish lists of the most relevant Web sites in your trade. But you've got to be rigorous about staying on top of recommendations. Strategy: clip suggestions, toss them into a file, and then devote time each week to checking them out.
I've Got That Address Here Somewhere...
Let's say you visit the Web site for Absentminded Press and would like to visit it regularly but would prefer not to remember--or type in--the company's complicated address (www.icantrecall.com/~distraction/spaceysort). Instead, while the page is open, you can simply click on the site with your right mouse button, choose Add Bookmark from Netscape's drop-down menu (or, with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, select Add to Favorites) and voilà!--you've bookmarked the site. Bookmarks allow your browser to function like a file cabinet. You open the appropriate drawer (or folder) that you've named, say, "publishers," open the file labeled "small presses," and click on "Absentminded," and, in seconds, you're at the company's Web site.
Using the Web effectively means constantly compiling and organizing your bookmarks, discarding those you don't use much or that turn out to be disappointing. Norbert J. Kubilus, an information-technology specialist in Yardley, Pa., keeps a limited number of bookmarks, and once every quarter he goes through and deletes those he hasn't used.
A minute or two invested in careful "filing" when you first create the bookmark will pay hefty dividends. Active business Web surfers know how critical it is to name each bookmark correctly so it can be found quickly later on. The sites usually offer default titles, but you're better off renaming them with titles or descriptions that fit the way you think. Another trick is putting bookmarks for sites that serve numerous purposes under multiple headings. You might put the Washington Post's home page in your "news" folder, its business page in your "business news" folder, and its classifieds under "help wanted."
Flowers Among the Weeds
Caveat emptor--be wary of the source. Anybody, after all, can put up a Web page. So it's useful to find as many reliable sites as you can. One way is to locate the sites of trade associations and publications. Their links to other Web pages are likely to be of high quality, as they've already been screened for industry relevance.
John-Scott Dixon, director of electronic media at Insight, a direct marketer of computer software based in Tempe, Ariz., advises you to watch the URL (or Web address). If the address has org appended, it is an organization; com stands for a business; gov denotes a government site; and edu means the site is run by an educational institution. Other helpful suffixes, including firm and store, will soon be available. Material from personal home pages is less reliable, as are chat-room postings, which can pop up on random keyword searches.
Shenk's basic rule is that you get what you pay for. Generally, he figures that sites that charge fees are of higher quality than free ones. He likes the Electric Library, where, for $9.95 a month, you can perform keyword searches on full-text articles written by journalists and experts--a process that can cost hundreds of dollars on the better-known Lexis-Nexis. It's a bargain, he figures, and it's better than counting on the random hits of search engines, which can turn up credible-sounding material that has actually been posted by lunatics and scam artists.
Start Spreading the News
Being pushy may be frowned upon in some circles, but in the Internet world, it's the hottest new concept. So-called push technology may be the best new hope for saving time. Instead of your going onto the Web in search of information, it comes to you--automatically. A big hit at the moment, push technology gathers news stories and other material based on criteria you set and then forwards them to you. It's like a personal clipping service, albeit one that's a little less able to discern good from bad than an old-fashioned human being. But the point is that you don't have to do anything but read the material when it comes in. Push comes in two basic varieties: E-mail message and screen saver. Examples include My Yahoo (edit.my .yahoo.com/config/login), which sends you a daily news page customized to your interests, and PointCast, which, among other things, flashes news and stock quotes across your screen.
Although it has yet to reach its potential, push technology does offer you a steady stream of stories about companies or industries you need to track. Consider signing up for some of the free introductory offers of several services and then testing them for your own needs.
Please, Mr. Postman, No More E-Mail
One way to monitor your industry is to check into a newsgroup. Newsgroups are ongoing Internet discussions that you can follow or participate in. People post messages and replies, and you can follow the entire conversation thread. Another means of staying informed is to subscribe to a listserv, an automated mailing list through which all the posted dialogue gets forwarded to you as E-mail.
Both newsgroups and listservs, however, can be dangerous time wasters. Too often you find yourself flooded by opinionated drivel, and suddenly, you're eavesdropping on the world. I went to Deja News, a site that indexes and lets you search newsgroup messages. When I typed in "business," I got back a list of newsgroups to which I could subscribe. Misc .entrepreneurs, for example, offered such gems as how to make a fortune in vending machines. Alt.business.import-export was just as bad, with people announcing their intention to sell products in Iran and then asking if anyone knows what Iranians might want to buy.
You're often better off checking into those discussions only when you have a specific question to be answered. But perhaps the most important thing about a listserv may be the means of getting off it. When you subscribe, save the message that tells you how to unsubscribe: usually you simply send a message back to the server, saying "unsubscribe," followed by the listserv name and your E-mail address.
Boot Up and See Me Sometime
It comes down to this: either you jump into the data stream and swim, or you quickly get out of shape. Information-technology specialist Kubilus, who also wrote an American Management Association report detailing executives' Internet use, spends about an hour a day browsing the Internet to keep up with Web developments.
You might plan to regularly visit 5 to 10 Web sites that you've bookmarked as good sources of industry information. And why not bookmark and pop into your competitors' Web sites regularly?
Ultimately, if you make the effort and incorporate the Web into your business life, you'll see the benefits of being plugged in. If you don't yet have your own company Web site, that will soon follow, and before long you'll be conducting everything from three-way video teleconferences to on-line fire sales. C'mon. Dip your toes in. The water's fine.
Russ Baker is a writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in Worth, George, New York, and other publications. Reporting assistance on tips and bookmarks provided by Joshua Beaton, Leslie Brokaw, Christopher Caggiano, Susan Greco, Phaedra Hise, Michelle Keyo, Joshua Macht, Martha Mangelsdorf, and Kascha Piotrzkowski.
RANDOM SEARCH TIPS. Before using a search engine to try to find information on something, try typing the term for that subject into the browser entry field. With wine, for example, type www.wine.com. You may find some surprisingly useful information that way.
AVOID GENERAL-BUSINESS NEWSGROUPS AND LISTSERVS. Look for very specific topics and organizations. Word of mouth is the best way to find good newsgroups.
THE CACHE THAT REFRESHES. Think you're looking at a page that ought to have been updated recently? You may be looking at a cached version. If you're using a Netscape browser, click on Options, then Network Preferences, then Cache. You can click on Clear Memory Cache and then Clear Disk Cache. The newest page will load up. (On Internet Explorer 4.0, you can do the same thing by going to the tool bar and clicking on View, then Options, then General, and then Settings.) A clogged cache can slow down your Web browser.
KEYBOARD SHORTCUTS. Many of the keyboard shortcuts that can save time with your word-processing software can also be used on your Web browser. Both Netscape and Internet Explorer let you use Ctrl-F to find, Ctrl-P to print, Ctrl-B to see bookmarks, and Crtl-D to add a bookmark. Some shortcuts are specific to the type of browser you have. Click on Help in Netscape or Internet Explorer and then look for "keyboard shortcuts" in the handbook or index.
THE BIG FREEZE. To keep your browser from getting stuck downloading, get a faster modem connection. Since that isn't an option for some people, the next best option is to close all other applications you won't be needing, before you go on-line.
BOOKMARK MAINTENANCE. It's one thing to bookmark your favorite Web pages; it's another to actually be able to use those bookmarks to access those pages. Don't be afraid to delete bookmarks you don't use anymore. Also, make folders within the bookmark menu, organized by broad topic, and then store individual bookmarks within those folders. Subdirectories of those folders are a must if you've got a lot to keep track of. Most browsers have a "sort" or "organize" function that will automatically alphabetize your bookmarks.
WHY WE CARE ABOUT BOOLEAN SEARCHES. You should care deeply about Boolean searches because they allow you to find an exact string of words, like an exact company name or a phrase. You can request Web pages containing both x AND y, as opposed to documents with either x OR y. It's a great tool for limiting searches. You can find an easy-to-understand table with Boolean search commands at www.inc.com/searchindex/help.html.
DON'T WORRY ABOUT ALL THOSE OPEN WINDOWS. They're usually used by Web sites so you don't leave the site completely. When you click on a link that would take you away from the host site, it actually launches another window. When you close the window you went to, the previous site is right there waiting for you.
THE POWER OF THE RIGHT CLICK. Many Web surfers underestimate the power of the right-button mouse click. When you're using a Netscape browser and you really want to move through pages quickly, sometimes it's easiest just to click the right button and navigate from the pop-up window. Try right-clicking your mouse when your cursor is positioned over a link, an image, or just somewhere on the page, and you'll be exposed to a whole new world of possibilities. The choices that you get when you right-click using Internet Explorer are more limited for navigational help than those on Netscape, but you do get some shortcuts nonetheless. (On a Macintosh, just hold your mouse button down.)
WHEN IN DOUBT, RELOAD. If something looks bizarre, try reloading.
What can a kid teach you? Plenty. To see for myself, I went to Columbia University's Institute for Learning Technologies, in New York City, to see Angel Colon, a shy 13-year-old from East Harlem. He couldn't imagine why using the Internet wasn't the most natural thing in the world, but I made him take me through the motions.
I learned how to find the Netscape browser and go to the Web page of the publication he helps put out, HarlemLive. There we learned how to get all kinds of information about Harlem. I clicked on "staff" and then on Angel's picture for a bio. Then I asked him about some practical business applications: how, say, we'd get information about distributing salsa. We called up the Yahoo! search engine and got a raft of choices. The best-sounding one, High Mesa Chili Salsa, located outside Alamogordo, N. Mex., declared itself "home to the famous Hazardous Hot Burning Coals Salsa." So we checked out its site, where we could even place an order.
Then we imagined we were pet-supply distributors looking for pet shops in Harlem. We typed in "Harlem" and "pet shop," and somehow our catch included sites about Harlem but not pets. Then we typed in "Harlem AND pet store." Finally, starting at www.urbanaccess.com/search/stores, we turned up a list of pet stores throughout the city, although not one of Harlem's many pet stores came up in the search. Angel seemed disappointed, so I asked him if maybe there wasn't a business opportunity there, to get the pet stores' sites up and running. Business isn't really for him, he'd decided. He is, he said, a writer. And I knew better than to trifle with an artist. --R.B.
If you're just starting to surf the Internet, your best bet is to get right out there. But exactly where is "out there"? Here are some Web sites that, in addition to those referenced in the main text, will give you a taste of what's available and how it might be useful in starting or growing your company.
PEOPLE AND BUSINESS FINDERS
If you're trying to locate phone numbers, street addresses, or E-mail addresses for people or businesses throughout the country, there are several free sites that will do the trick. For phone numbers and street addresses, consider www.5551212.com, lookupusa.com, and www.four11.com, and www.switchboard.com. To look up E-mail addresses, try www.four11.com and www.iaf.net. Each site works essentially the same way, but if you strike out on one, you might find what you're looking for with another. You can also look up zip codes on-line at www.usps.gov/ncsc/lookups/lookup_ctystzip.html.
Ask any five people which search engine is the best for finding what you're looking for when you don't know a specific site's URL, and you'll get five different answers. Everyone has his or her favorite and can tell you why it's best, hands down. Don't believe what you hear. Try out various search engines until you find the one you're most comfortable with. Today's most popular search engines are www.hotbot.com, www.altavista.digital.com, www.excite.com, www.infoseek.com, www.yahoo.com, and www.lycos.com. There are also sites that let you search using more than one of these search engines at a time: www.dogpile.com, for example, lets you search using more than a dozen engines at once; www.all4one.com lets you search on AltaVista, HotBot, Lycos, and Excite simultaneously.
BASIC INFORMATION FOR START-UPS
Of course, there's Inc. Online (www.inc.com), Inc.'s own Web site, designed to be an all-around resource for a growing company. But there's also a surprisingly good source of basic information for start-up businesses at the Small Business Administration's Web site. It includes a section called "Starting Your Business," which features a sample business plan as well as information about and links to sources of financing, marketing expertise, and resources. There is also a plethora of sites that contain links to other sites that have valuable management information. The Institute of Management and Administration maintains a collection of links, organized by management discipline, that are particularly useful if you're starting or running a business.
There's a surprising amount of good data available over the Internet free from the federal government. The best starting point for seeing what's available and accessing it is to visit www.fedworld.gov. It's a great centralized source for information ranging from taxes to environmental-cleanup standards. Before going to a search engine or picking up a phone, start there.