Smarter Tools to Scour a Wider Web

One of the challenges of the Internet is that as the World Wide Web grows,
finding needles in that ever-expanding haystack keeps getting harder. But there
are tools that can make it easier to locate useful information.

My favorite is the Google Toolbar, which incorporates the power of what is
hands-down the best search service on the Web directly into Microsoft Internet
Explorer for Windows. (It does not work with Netscape or AOL). For some reason,
Google has hidden this lamp under a bushel, not promoting it even on the service’s
spartan home page. But you can download it from

Once downloaded, the program creates a small Google toolbar on IE (version
5.0 or later). Typing a word or phrase into the toolbar and clicking the
“search” button brings up a list of relevant Web pages, just like on If you click the toolbar’s “search site” button
instead, your search will be limited to the site you are on–often with better
results than using that site’s own search capabilities. On the
site, for example, I typed “Windows 98” into the site’s own search
function to find stories on the operating system. I got a long list of stories,
but many of even the top returns had only passing references to Windows 98. The
top returns using the Google toolbar were what I was looking for: stories
focused on Windows 98. The toolbar also gives access to other Google features,
including advanced searches using many options.

Atomica (formerly GuruNet) is different because it gives you direct results,
not links. Once the program is installed on a Windows system, you can alt-click
on a word, and a window pops open giving you a dictionary definition. The window
also offers you an assortment of data appropriate to the search term. For
example, searching on a city name offers maps and weather, while a company name
offers financial information and news.

Here today…

Smart Cursor from Comet Systems is somewhat similar, but less clever and
versatile. Once Smart Cursor is installed in Internet Explorer, you can choose a
dictionary cursor, an encyclopedia cursor, or a search cursor. When you click on
a word, you get a definition, an encyclopedia reference, or a Web search. But it
only works for words on a Web page, whereas Atomica works on any text.

A Search Helper

Best of breed, but works only with Internet Explorer

Defines words, gets relevant information as well as launching searches

Similar to Atomica, but works only
on Web pages

An also-ran in this group

I found QuickClick from NBCi the least useful of the services I tried. It’s
similar to Smart Cursor in that it allows you to get additional information just
by clicking on a word on your screen. But it’s much slower, and getting a
dictionary definition requires at least one additional click. QuickClick
concentrates on offering links related to what you clicked on. It also provides
a window for entering search terms, but it only gives you links to other search
engines. All in all, QuickClick was often slower and harder than just using
regular browser tools.

One thing that all of these products have in common is the lack of a clear
business model that will give them staying power. Google offers first-rate
technology, but there’s no indication that the privately held company is
anywhere close to profitability. Atomica is trying to sell its software as a
knowledge-sharing tool for corporations. And there have been
persistent rumors that General Electric will pull the plug on NBCi. I don’t
know how long these tools will be around, so enjoy them while you can.

By Stephen H Wildstrom
in BusinessWeek. Copyright 2001 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc

Size matters

Mini-dots do it right

Small businesses use far different
strategies from the venture-funded dot-coms. That has helped them thrive
on the Web, where their bigger forebears went bust. Here’s how:
Small fry know how to use the Web to stretch a buck. Carrie Hardy,
founder of scrapbook supplier Scrappin’ Happy, frequently e-mails offers
to her 1,100 customers–at zero cost–instead of taking out $80 ads in
trade magazines. She says her business, which grossed $52,000 last year,
will grow 25% this year.

Thanks to the Web’s farflung reach, merchants can specialize in
narrow niches that otherwise might be too small. E-tailer Waggin’ Tails
zeroed in on super-premium pet kibble. With margins averaging 30%–vs 10%
for mass-market pet supplies–Waggin’ Tails is turning a small profit
on less than $5 million in sales.

Little guys use the Net’s unique features–from auctions to
newsgroups–to reach new customers. Trudy Schnell, owner of collectible
store Kringle Kottage, had a Santa Claus cookie jar on her store’s shelf
for four years. When she listed it on eBay, it sold for $162. Now, some
30% of her $100,000 in annual sales comes from eBay, about half her online

Small players can join online programs that help them operate like
larger rivals. Bookseller Kerry Slattery hawks books online that she doesn’t
carry in her Los Angeles store, Skylight Books. How? By using,
a collaborative selling program for independent stores, which she partly
credits for a 15% jump in 2000 sales.

Small Web businesses take that friendly corner-store service online.
When a customer of complained that a $42.96 device that
helps drivers park cars in tight spaces had been $3.01 cheaper on the site
the week before, founder Paul Hinrichs personally whacked the price–and
made the sale.

Now, these mini-dots are proving they’re an online force to be reckoned
with. Indeed, they’re teaching their bigger rivals a thing or two–including
the value of common sense. Unlike some dot-coms with inexperienced executives,
the mini-dots are succeeding by employing the same strategies that
small-business owners have relied on for centuries: They’re sticking to niches
they know well. They scrimp on expenses, forgoing expensive portal deals and
using Net resources, from e-mail to customer-sharing arrangements, to save
money. And they’re banding together on the Web, presenting a bigger face to
the online world.

So far, it seems to be working–so well that small businesses appear poised
to play a greater role in the growth of e-commerce than anyone expected. Small
companies will see their online sales grow 336% from 2000, to $120 billion by
the end of 2002, predicts ami-Partners, a New York consultant to small and
medium-size businesses. That will outpace overall e-commerce revenue growth of

Of course, size matters, even in the New Economy. But in some crucial ways,
the Net helps level the playing field for small outfits. For one thing, the cost
savings of selling online and dispensing with store rents or direct-mail costs
makes some businesses viable that otherwise wouldn’t be–say, a home-based
collectibles business.

Moreover, the global nature of the Web goes a long way toward negating one
key disadvantage of the small fry: geographic reach. Now, even a niche seller of
specialty pet supplies can amass enough customers to be viable. Finally, the
easy communications afforded by the Net may make more small businesses,
especially services such as graphic design, attractive to larger businesses
seeking to outsource jobs.

The impact of a mini-dot explosion could have big implications beyond the
Web. By 2004, even the tiniest of these e-merchants–those with fewer than 10
employees and $3 million in annual sales–could account for as much as 10% of
the US gross domestic product, according to e-commerce researcher Keenan Vision.

Maybe so, but big questions remain about how much the Net will boost the
number of small businesses and what impact they’ll truly have on the economy.
For one thing, says William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National
Federation of Independent Business, it’s possible the Net is simply shifting
existing sales online, not expanding markets enough to support many new
businesses. He adds, it’s likely that the most successful online businesses
will put the other mom-and-pops out of business, lessening the net gain. Most
traditional small businesses fail, and the same may well be true online.

And for all its advantages, the Internet presents a lot of challenges to the
little guys, too. In many parts of the country, pokey Net connections limit how
many visitors these sites can handle. And it can be tough for traditional
businesses coming online to handle both channels at once. Those factors may
explain why, for all the small businesses that have launched online, many more
have not yet moved beyond sites that are nothing more than online brochures.
According to ami-Partners, 22% of small businesses had Web sites in 2000, but
only 8% were engaging in e-commerce.

Still, none of these challenges has stopped a growing number of small
businesses from embracing the Web as a new sales channel and productivity tool.
Many of the online newbies are longtime Main Street merchants or
industrial-goods manufacturers. There’s also a raft of service providers–computer
programmers, graphic designers, lawyers, and such–who have left Corporate
America to hang a shingle on the Internet.

The Web is spawning new breeds of small companies, too. They include tens of
thousands of people who never ran a business before but now make a living
selling collectible ornaments, antique toys, and other odds and ends on sites
such as eBay. About 13,000 stores have sprouted on the Yahoo! Stores section
alone since June, 1998.

What these disparate businesses have discovered is that the Net is less a
magic carpet to a newfound land of riches than a tool to turbocharge an already
sound business model. “The Internet is what the telephone was when it was
invented–a way to further our reach,” says Wendy Haig, founder of
Washington (DC)-based Global Strategy, which counsels troubled dot-coms.
“With its vast reach, the Internet will enhance any small business that
uses it properly.”

How so? First, they’re using the Net’s access to a global customer base
to zero in on defensible niches, instead of offering all things to all Web
surfers., for instance, went bust in December partly because it tried
to sell all kinds of pet supplies–even huge bags of inexpensive dog food with
high shipping costs and margins under 10%. By contrast, Massachusetts based
Waggin’ Tails sells scarce items such as Provi-Tabs dog vitamins and Hi-Tor
prescription cat food. That allows the Web store to charge high enough prices to
turn a 30% profit margin on well under $5 million in annual sales.

In some cases, the Web’s global reach has allowed entrepreneurs to offer
entirely new types of narrowly focused services. Patti Glick, a San Francisco
nurse trained in podiatry, makes a living speaking at companies on foot health
and safety. Before, she had to do a lot of personal networking, such as mingling
at Toastmasters meetings. Now, by participating in various online podiatric
sites and women’s portals, Glick has drawn corporate customers intrigued by
her screen name, “footnurse.” She expects to earn $30,000 this year
working part-time hours that allow her to spend time with her 10-year-old twins.

Small businesses also are using the Net to save big bucks–enough, in many
cases, to make a pipe dream a going business. Selling Beanie Babies and other
collectibles online out of a bedroom in his Oklahoma home, Perry Calton is
grossing annual sales in the low six figures.

Besides saving money, the Net also provides mini-dots a wealth of new
marketing channels. E-mail and discussion newsgroups can be far less expensive
and more effective than direct mail and print or TV advertising. Carrie Hardy,
founder of Colorado based scrapbook-supply site Scrappin’ Happy, sends
newsletters to 1,100 past customers and posts messages on scrapbooking
newsgroups. Instead of buying $80, three-line ads in trade magazines that never
drove any traffic anyway, she spends nothing and gets a far better response:
After mailing her February newsletter, sales doubled the next day.

No online marketing channel has proved more effective than online auctions,
pioneered by eBay in 1996. Besides spurring the formation of thousands of new
small businesses online, they have prompted existing businesses to branch out.
Some wholesalers are using eBay to go retail:

Andrew Waites took his Mississippi retail overstock business, Inventory
Procurement Services, directly to consumers over eBay–leading to what he hopes
will be a twofold-plus jump in sales this year, to $7 million, and a gross
profit margin online of 50%, 10 times the original business.

Finally, the Net has allowed far-flung small businesses to gang up and pool
their resources against their bigger and louder competition in ways they can’t
do in the physical world. The American Booksellers Association, which promotes
independent bookstores, runs a program called that allows members
to offer amenities only big chains could offer before, such as gift certificates
good at any member store. Moreover, their online customers can order any book in
print from their site, even if they don’t stock it themselves. Kerry Slattery,
owner of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, partly credits the program for a
higher-than-expected 15% rise in her store’s sales in 2000, to $1 million.

Daunting prospect

All that’s not to say the Web can turn any small business into a raging
success. Most entrepreneurs are running into obstacles on the Web that are hard
to overcome with limited staff and resources. One of the toughest jobs:
providing superior customer service. After all, to make up for what they may
lack in product breadth–not to mention customers’ ability to click instantly
to another site–they have to offer much more personal service.

Another challenge is Internet technology itself. Fast broadband connections
are still largely unavailable, especially in rural areas, leaving many small
businesses stuck with snail-like modem connections. And many worry that they
could lose a lot of customers if their connection goes down. Says Deepinder
Sahni, vice-president at researcher ami-Partners: "What we are hearing is
that they are hesitant to put their crown jewels–their companies–on the

For many small businesses, the prospect of competing with the online
behemoths is daunting–for good reason. It may be only a matter of time before
the big guys notice how well they’re doing and jump onto their turf. So they
must stay vigilant, even paranoid, about differentiating their offerings.

That, however, is not the main worry of most small businesses that have moved
online. Their problem: too much business. When Jordan Dossett posted her
graphic-design portfolio a year ago on, a Web marketplace for
freelance workers, she was buried under an avalanche of work offers from
companies as far away as Russia. So she quit her job as art director for a law
firm and opened The Design Studio in her Washington (DC) home. After hiring
three employees, she expects to rake in $350,000 in sales–and a tidy gross
profit of $250,000. "I had no idea the amount of demand out there,"
she says. "Suddenly, I’m slammed." Now, that’s a problem a lot of
dead dot-coms would love to have had.

Arlene Weintraub–BusinessWeek

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