User's Guide

Who says you have to shrink the Internet to make it manageable?

Well, portal sites such as Yahoo! do. Likewise Web-based superstores à la NECX. Not to mention virtual trading floors (FreeMarkets OnLine) and industry malls (Instill). Then there are the tens of millions of consumers and corporate buyers in whom the prospect of truly unlimited choice evokes a kind of intellectual gagging reflex.

The Internet's efficiency as a buying mechanism, those folks argue, is sizably undercut by its magnitude. It is therefore in buyers' interest to limit their list of potential suppliers to an embraceable 2 or 10 or 50 choices. And if those 2 or 10 or 50 are so designated because they have a business arrangement with the entity doing the culling (generally, a Web site that aggregates vendor information)--well, that's just business.

But the whole thing is just so...un-Internet. That's the lament of Walid Mougayar, author of Opening Digital Markets (McGraw-Hill, 1998) and president of Cybermanagement Inc., in Toronto. Mougayar points out that while Web sites that aggregate vendors give small businesses increased exposure, they also close doors for companies not represented. "If you're a supplier, you have to work within the aggregator's model," says Mougayar. "If you're a customer, you have to assume that what's offered is what's out there. In either case, you're not getting the benefit of the true global marketplace."

Mougayar believes the current system--in which aggregator sites represent only a small fraction of the suppliers in any given market--will evolve into a sort of prelapsarian universe of stand-alone sites of comparable visibility. Such perfect democracy would be achieved through the use of software agents--digital golden retrievers that can be programmed to fetch not just sticks but all sticks that are, say, 37 inches long with gray bark. Agents bring back useful information from Web sites and arrange it in tables so products can be compared point by point.

Unfortunately, agents can't find everything. They may, for example, ignore sites that use vocabulary that they haven't been programmed to recognize ("domestic" rather than "U.S."). But that problem may go away, thanks to something called Extensible Markup Language, or XML. (Stay awake--there's going to be a short quiz next period.) XML lets Web-site creators develop invisible tags that act as hooks for passing search agents. For example, Francesco's Gelato Inc.--a company whose site contains visible references only to the Italian word for its product--might create a tag reading "ice cream" so non-Italianate agents programmed to find the frozen dessert will be digitally nabbed as they cruise by. The gelato vendor could also program an XML tag to accept queries for wholesale orders only.

Also needed, says Mougayar, are "E-business rules": data on things like terms of payment, delivery options, and return policies that would be described identically on all sites within an industry. "The rules are admission tickets for sellers," says Mougayar.

Faced with every possible choice, buyers in this model would have to make queries rigorously specific to prevent their agents from bringing back tired, poor, or irrelevant data. But they would sleep the sleep of the blessed knowing that they were getting the best possible match. Suppliers, meanwhile, would get a fair shot at each new bit of business.

But that, Mougayar reminds us, is the future. Until then, you can pass the time by dropping me a note about your strategy for being found on-line.

-- Leigh Buchanan, Editor