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Let Your Fingers Do the Walking
Apr 01, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

Why is it that every content provider on the web seems to have the same business model? Give away everything under the sun to the consumer, and hope to drive the hit count to a point where advertisers feel that you're worthy of their banners and ad dollars. It's being repeated time and time again. I figure that everyone just immediately caved when John Perry Barlow said that "information wants to be free."

Isn't anyone producing content that's worth paying for?

This isn't a new model, of course, the phone company has been doing it for years. Not with your long distance charges, of course, but with the yellow pages. Every year, thump, a new set arrives on your doorstep. Loads of content, free to the consumer, supported by ad dollars. So, the yellow pages and the web -- a match made in heaven, right?

BigBook is betting on it.

Hey, it looks promising on the surface... A nationwide directory of 11 million businesses. A quick search algorithm. The ability for businesses to link their listing to their home page, or use BigBook's forms to create one on the fly. Integrated locator maps. And that's just the beginning. They're planning on adding a database of user-supplied ratings of businesses, in-depth reviews, and third-party recommendations. And coupons, of course. Lots and lots of coupons.

Their goal? To be the über-source of business information in the United States. To be the place everyone goes to when they're looking for a neighborhood Chinese restaurant that delivers.

OK, wait a minute. I spend a lot of time on the web, but am I going to boot up the machine, dial into the net, launch Netscape, connect to BigBook and do a search for local Chinese restaurants? No. I'm going to reach for the (hard copy) yellow pages, or, better yet, ask a friend if they know of a decent egg roll in the area.

But convenience aside, I think there are serious holes in BigBook's business plan.

  • BigBook hopes to differentiate itself from the competition (both paper and virtual) through the "value-add" of user-supplied information like reviews, ratings and recommendations. Which means that they're leaving their primary market advantage up to the online whims of their users. Be honest -- how many surveys do you fill out in a day? And the next time you go get your hair cut, are you going to rush right back to your PC and write a review of your hairdreser for the other users of BigBook?
  • BigBook hopes to be the one stop source for information across the country. And that means targteting the traveler. Let's say I'm headed to Atlanta for the Olympics, and I want to do some research on hotels and restaurants before I go. Do I trust the ratings submitted by average joes in BigBook? Or do I point my browser to a local Atlanta newspaper and read real restaurant reviews?
  • As with most web sites, BigBook's real customer is not the surfing consumer. While the advertiser-supported model works well for online magazines and other publishing efforts, I feel that something is amiss when the same model is applied to BigBook. BigBook speaks platitudes about helping consumers make "better, more informed decisions" about the products they buy. But when push comes to shove, the advertisers pay the bills, drive the revenue and keep the lights on.

I'm not faulting BigBook for trying. They probably are imagining that through an enormous phone book, a T1 line, some electronic maps, a nice Informix database and a bunch CGI scripts that they can change the nature of purchase decisions. But I have a feeling that the medium is too young to support this type of effort. The web isn't ubiquitous enough for people to skip their hard copy yellow pages for the soft copy. And there aren't just enough people online to create the bottom-up swell of added-value information that BigBook is counting on.

But what really bothers me is that BigBook has started with an attitude of failure, and that they must not believe in the value of their product. When they come out and state that "we don't believe in charging consumers," they're saying that their database of 11 million businesses, linked with maps, prettied by home pages and enriched by user-input will never be valuable enough to support revenue from their real customers, the consumers.

And all that does is reinforce the reality that consumers, instead of being a valued constituency (with voting dollars), are really just hit count fodder to drive advertising revenue.



Other pieces about ecommerce: