Web Content: The Once and Future King

A recent report from the Pew Research Center rattled cages in the offices of TV news programs with the headline-making revelation that a third of Americans get news from the Internet every week. But the survey should serve as a wake-up call for e-commerce companies as well.

Although content was the information superhighway’s original raison d’etre, it seemed to become the Web’s neglected child as waves of e-commerce companies stole the spotlight with increasingly sophisticated shopping attractions. But the Pew survey suggests that content is still the Internet’s biggest draw.

The good news is bittersweet for content sites; they may never fully recapture the imaginations of investors. Although many financial backers were lured away by e-commerce ventures that have since experienced collapsing stock values — and the dot-com shakeout shows no sign of letting up — pure-content sites have not escaped the turbulence.

Raining Pink Slips

Despite a slew of awards and some big-name celebrity backers, APBNews.com ran out of cash and fired all its workers, and Salon.com handed pink slips to a large percentage of its staff — including the CEO’s wife.

Still, content remains the top reason why people log onto the Internet. And while many e-commerce sites have made some efforts to include content on their sites, they are often token offerings designed to anchor the shopping pages while masquerading as “added value.”

Hard News

But the Pew research shows that people want real news and information — especially regarding finances and investments — from credible online sources. It is not enough to dress a site up with never-changing features and predictable how-to pieces. Instead, e-commerce companies should consider linking their operations more closely to real news outlets.

Of course, at some portals, links to current news sit alongside shopping links in a single browser window. And many shopping sites already offer links to content sites — for example, an online bookstore may link to a book review site.

But there are many additional ways that Internet companies could narrow the gap between commerce and content even more.

Credibility Rubs Off

One approach might be through association with established news sites. Conflict-of-interest issues would have to be carefully addressed, but those concerns might work in favor of e-commerce companies in the long run.

Legitimate news outlets — whether they are online-only newcomers or offshoots of venerable print or broadcast media — will not sacrifice integrity and credibility for any price. Those are exactly the type of content sites that e-commerce companies should gravitate toward, in the hope that their sheen of legitimacy will rub off.

It is a widely accepted view that consolidation is at hand in e-commerce and across the Internet. Companies should think creatively about what form that consolidation might take.

The most successful e-commerce players have always been the ones that deliver value above and beyond good products and customer service. For example, Amazon includes book reviews from such sources as Publisher’s Weekly, along with comments from past customers. The site’s customer reviews of other products are a big hit with shoppers as well.

Creative Approaches

Sites targeting businesses — especially small businesses — are also using content as a hook.

Onvia.com’s Web site, for example, includes an extensive archive of stories about running a small business — from finding capital to choosing electronics. Business.com, which just launched after much anticipation, takes a similar approach.

This formula will not work for every e-commerce concern, of course. There are limits to the amount of news and information that Pets.com, for example, can effectively use at its site. But there are other ways to crack the content nut.

For example, an e-commerce player could sponsor a certain page of an online news publication — a deal that might include displaying a product or discount offer somewhere on the site. This type of arrangement would narrow the gap between content and commerce without stepping over ethical boundary lines and without forcing surfers to wade through myriad e-commerce offers to get to the content they want.

Other creative solutions will undoubtedly present themselves when forward-thinking e-commerce marketers take up the challenge.

Although information for its own sake may still be lost in the shadows, the ground appears to be thawing, and before long, Internet content will resume its rightful place in the sun.

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