Looking to turbocharge your Web site? Start with these 18 tools

A distinctive commercial "face" may be even more important in cyberspace than it is in the real world. After all, on the Web cleverer graphics and fancier applications are only a click away. Fortunately, the number of products and services that can put a shine on a site is exploding. The boom has been fueled by two factors: an increase in the demand for bells and whistles (the ferocious competition on the Web requires constant upgrades) and a new and extremely effective way to distribute software called "application serving," which is provided by an application service provider, or ASP. (See "Are You Being Served?" below.)

We thought it was time to check out the scene. We culled through the scores of Web tools currently available, looking for those that would be the most useful for small businesses or had the kind of bleeding-edge features that would make a site stand out from the pack.

What follows is a representative sample of the coolest of the cool among them:

Ads Infinitum
Perhaps the most legitimate way to pay for advertising is according to goods sold -- that is, on a commission basis. Sites that host ads under such an arrangement are called affiliates, or sometimes associates. In an affiliate arrangement, a qualified authority (you, for example) presents a list of goods and endorses them, together with a link to a vendor. If sales result from that endorsement, the vendor pays the endorser a commission. The system seems to work: bounties have crept as high as 30% for some high-end goods like gift items. If you're interested in becoming an affiliate, contact one of the many Web-based companies, including Befree.com and Affiliaterecruiters.com, that have sprung up to handle the recruitment process.

What's Up, .doc?
Web-site animation -- which once was confined to flapping flags and the like -- is growing steadily more ambitious, taking the eye of the viewer on complex paths through scenes and around objects. While content development can cost tens of thousands of dollars -- the animator usually has to hand-build several 3-D objects, define the direction of the lighting, and move the camera through the scene -- the technique can communicate vast amounts of information.

To view some impressive examples, visit the Web site of Animation Technologies, a visual-communications company based in Boston. On display might be anything from engineering processes (for example, the steel skeleton of a building for a forensic analysis of a failed I beam) to architectural visualizations (a proposed interior design of corporate office space) to infomercials (a demonstration of the Stim-u-lure, a popular fishing lure).

Animation Technologies will visit your company to interview the players and collect the props for any show you want to present. It will then draw the 3-D objects and return them to you in digitized form to load on your server. (Prices vary according to the job.)

If you already have photos of the objects you want to present, you might try Canoma, by MetaCreations ($469), an off-the-shelf software product that builds 3-D models from 2-D photographs of objects shot from a variety of perspectives. After you've scanned the photos into your computer or transferred them from your digital camera, you use Canoma to build a wire-frame model of each object. Then, one by one, you "clip" the myriad photos of each object to the model and -- voilà! -- a seamless theater-in-the-round.

eBays 'R' Us
The wave of auctions washing over the Web testifies to their attraction, as well as to their cost-effectiveness in disposing of discontinued merchandise or inventory overstocks. One popular source of hosted-auction services is the ASP www.fairmarket.com, which supplies, among other things, fraud prevention, billing and collections, product listings, customer service, and technical support. The fees for all that service, however, are fairly hefty: at least several thousand dollars a month. A more affordable alternative is the ASP www.auctionuniverse.com, which provides what it calls Hosted Private Label Auctions for about $3,500 a year.

For those who want to strike out on their own, there's free auction software at www.everysoft.com; just download the stuff and you're in business. (On-line tech support is free as well, but telephone support costs; it starts at $500 for five hours.) If you're going to open an auction space on your site, you might as well throw in classifieds (fixed-price buy-and-sell offers), since not everyone is comfortable with auction pricing. Visit software developer Websoft and check out the Web Classifieds software ($395) that you can download and run from your own server.