The Makings of a Mediocre Web Site

"It's not the content. It's the people, stupid. Content may be why people visit a site. But community is why people stay."
-- Tom Rielly, CEO of PlanetOut, quoted in last week's Business Week cover story on building on-line communities.

I was present last night at a peculiar gathering: the celebration of the opening of Barnes and Noble's web site. Held in one of the more interesting public spaces in New York City, the Science, Industry, and Business branch of the public library, it was a case study of how to do everything wrong and yet still get the buzz, such as day-before coverage in the Times.

  1. Set expectations too high. Everywhere I went at the reception, and around the web site, I was reminded that this was the "world's largest bookseller online." Note the careful placement of the adjectives here. They didn't say they were the biggest online bookseller, which is good because they currently aren't. Indeed, just the notion of having a half-million dollar reception (or whatever it cost to rent out SIBL and fill it with People Who Wear Black) for a new web site is slightly offensive. I mean, we are talking about a couple of computers and some telephone wires folks, not the cure for cancer.

    Granted, part of me went to the reception because of SIBL itself, the real star of the evening. If you ever have a chance to stop by this place, it is at the corner of Madison and 35th in the old B. Altman department store. There are tons of free computers, all Internet-connected with nice HP Laser printers, and a bunch of reference materials that are available online and in the stacks. There are helpful people to show you how to surf and search. And a magazine collection that almost rivals the Penn Station newsstands a few blocks away, only you don't have to feel guilty reading them because you are in a library! Anyway, I digress.

  2. Go after an established competitor and come up short. I kept comparing what B&N was doing with what Amazon and others have had for many many months. For example: Is their catalog better, more comprehensive than their competitors? I did some searches of prolific authors to see who had more titles: a simple test, really. Amazon came out ahead every time, with unpublished or newer titles that weren't in the B&N catalog. And Amazon's searching functions are much better implemented than B&N: easier to get to with fewer clicks and keystrokes.
  3. Pay lip service to community-building. Like Tom (above) says, the web is about community. B&N has put together a bunch of cheesy discussion forums, and has cobbled together a few pages devoted to chat. Given that the service is just getting going this afternoon, these forums were vast empty spaces. But I doubt that many book lovers will be motivated to fill these up with their comments. Time will tell. Now take a look at some of the community-building that Amazon has done: It is easy to add your own comments to a title with a minimum of fuss and bother. You can sign up to become an Amazon Associate and get a small commission on books that you promote from your own web site.

    (Indeed, this idea has taken off: another book site,, offers to keep track of referred customers forever, so that once someone enters their site from yours, you continue to get a commission on their business. Sort of like in the insurance business: this person represents a long annuity stream to the salesperson. I like it.)

  4. Membership doesn't have its privileges. American Express had it right, if you are going to put together a membership program, make it worth something more than just snob appeal. I can sign up for notification of new book titles on Amazon with nothing more than an email address. But if I do become a member of Amazon, my payment information is already encoded so I don't have to enter it every time I want to purchase a book. Neither are the case with B&N's site. Being a B&N member doesn't buy you much, it seems.
  5. Bad beta tests, using the wrong population. B&N came out with their first site on AOL a few months ago. Most of the web site is pretty similar. There is that wonderful tag line of the world's largest whatever. There is the same so-so search function and database. Being AOL, the discussion groups have participants and messages, but not as many as you might think given the prodigious amount of time that AOL'ers can spend typing in this sort of stuff. (And the forums on AOL are different from the web-based ones, so that one community can't talk to the other. That isn't necessarily bad, but it is confusing.) Why was AOL the wrong population? Because most AOL'ers aren't web savvy, and many aren't going to give the best feedback unless they also have looked on the web to see what the competition is doing such as Amazon.
  6. Finally, bad location. You would think that a brand like Barnes and Noble is worth lots in cyberspace. Unfortunately, it is a pain in the carpal tunnel to type in as a URL: It looks funny on the page. No, I am not being small-minded here. Maybe lazy. But I made lots of mistakes trying to type in their name in my browser, and I am a pretty accurate typist. It just doesn't work. Indeed, the whole "and" thing in a domain name really doesn't flow for me. As Emperor Josef says in Amadeus, there are just too many notes.

    Have you noticed that I haven't said anything about site design, graphics, layout, page links, navigation and button placement, etc. etc.? And I am not going to. Building the best web sites really has less and less to do with design these days: B&N blew it on other things, and some really important ones.

    Too bad: I like shopping at their physical stores. But when it comes to cyberspace, my mouse clicks go to Amazon.

    Sitekeeping, self-promotions and situations wanted dep't

    No, you haven't missed any issues of WI. I have been on vacation, and attending Networld+Interop last week, so haven't been near a computer. In the meantime, you might have missed my Web Review article on push, which covers my favorite technologies from the perspective of the publisher. Speaking of push, you might also want to attend the Web Broadcasting conference next month if you are going to be in the Bay Area and hear what I have to say in person.

    David Strom
    +1 (516) 944-3407
    back issues
    entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.