Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    The Web can generate business for companies that understand its limitations

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #289 May 9, 1995   High Tech Office  column

    Net-hype continues, at an amazingly feverish pitch. In one recent Saturday edition of Vancouver's daily of record, I counted five mentions of the Internet, including two in the business section. And getting business onto the Internet-- and the World Wide Web in particular --is a growth industry these days.

    Until recently, commercial activity was pretty much banned from the Net, which obtained its base funding from the U.S. government's National Science Foundation (NSF) as a way to connect university researchers. In recent years, however, NSF funding has been cut, and the Net has opened up to business.

    So along with the scientists and computer types, more and more businesses are finding their way onto the Internet. But in many cases, this means unreal expectations about what role they can expect the Net to play for their businesses.

    For starters, don't count on the Net to directly generate sales.

    Some businesses are trying to use the Internet as a low-cost equivalent of the Home Shopping Network. This may eventually pay off, but we're not there yet. While there are claims of up to 30 million Internet users, that figure includes large numbers with only a token Internet interest. And the demographics are unusual-- 90 per cent of Internet users are male, for example.

    Still, there are some real benefits. Electronic mail is a real plus. The explosion of Internet mail permits its use between offices, for employees on the road, and for customers seeking technical support or product information. Every business should have an Internet mail address, and it should be listed on everyone's business card.

    But while practical, these are the mundane uses of the Net. When people talk about the Internet today, they're usually referring to the World Wide Web, which offers fancy text, graphics, sound and video.

    Only a few years old, the Web is experiencing explosive growth. The number of 'home pages' posted on the Web is doubling every five months.

    Vancouver's Nettwerk Records has an international reputation, supporting artists such as Sarah McLachlan and Ginger.

    Nettwerk's Web address (http://www is listed on its new CD covers. Internet users can access it from anywhere without incurring big phone charges. On it, they get a post-modern graphical interface that is in keeping with the company's product line. They can download pictures of their favourite artists and snippets of music or video. They can still order paraphernalia.

    The West Coast Environmental Law Society's home page ( is much more pedestrian-looking, mostly text and a logo.

    For years, the group has used computer networking to distribute environmental legal information throughout B.C., and to network with organizations sharing its interests around the world.

    Web browsers, however, have become commonplace, and can be used on PCs, Macs, Unix machines, even Amigas. Anyone with an Internet account can access the society's postings of significant legal decisions and regulations.

    If Nettwerk's site is arty, and the law society's is plain and simple, the NorthWest Homes OnLine (NWHO) pages show how a business can use Web pages in a straightforward way.

    nwho ( provides advertising space on the Web for real estate agents and individual properties for sale or rent. Rates start at $15 a month for a property, or $59 per year for an agent. Ads for properties include MLS data, along with a scanned colour photo.

    The service comes across as no more than a higher-resolution version of the Real Estate Weekly-- but it covers a wider area, and has the potential to reach a more general audience. Click on a map of the Lower Mainland to jump to the list for that area.

    NWHO reports about 700 enquiries per day, with up to one-third coming from outside North America.

    Remember, it's just as easy and inexpensive for a customer in Japan, Germany, or Argentina to access your Vancouver Web listing as it is for one in Burnaby.

    These are three examples of local organizations that have found a way to use the Web effectively. But not everyone is so lucky.

    The Web is being flooded with poorly designed pages. Sometimes the Web can seem like a high-tech, '90s version of vanity publishing; sometimes it looks more like a slide show of someone's trip to the Grand Canyon.

    And even the best-designed, most clearly focused page is only useful if it gets seen. Stanford University's Yahoo ( is a Web search site available for user reference.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan