Interviewer: Jim Roberts, ABC

Q: What are portals and how do they work?
A: With the huge amount of information out on the 'net, it's hard to know where to start looking. Many people have a set of common interests they are interested in reviewing regularly, eg. weather, sports, stock values and, of course, their email.

Portals offer a "window" into the wide world of the 'net, a window that is personalised and customisable. The information presented to you is specific and relevant. The benefit for the service provider is that you keep coming back (eg. advertising revenue), and the benefit for you is you find all your information in one easy to access place!

At a technical level, the service provider makes agreements with all the information providers (eg. weather bureau, sports associations, stock markets) to access their data live, to ensure that you get the most recent information possible.

In an e-commerce environment, the seller ensures that you can customise your purchasing preferences, so that you will keep coming back and quickly finding the products you like (buying more from them!)

Q: What role does an ISP have in e-commerce business?
A: The ISP plays a pretty fundamental role in your online business -- if they mess up, you don't have an online business! Some ISPs offer e-commerce solutions as a standard package in their suite of products, others partner with e-commerce experts (eg. IBM, Sun, etc) to provide a comprehensive solution with the ISP providing the network and the partner providing the online business expertise.

Since all your information will rest on your ISP, and every online business transaction will go through your ISP, it is very important you find an ISP that you can both trust and rely on. Their skill and expertise is critical to the success of your online business.

If you are selling a product (services are somewhat different), your transactions will probably happen something like this:

  1. People come to look at your site. If your products are easy to find and well described, they might choose to buy. If you are selling a commodity item, they may use a "shopping basket" to choose multiple items before proceeding to purchase (eg. CDs, books, etc).
  2. Having chosen the product(s) they will buy, people proceed to the purchasing area of your site, where they enter their finance details (usually a credit card) and the delivery address (most products are shipped by post/parcel services).
  3. Finally, customers are given a receipt number (or, more often than not, are given a personal account as part of step (1) or (2) so they can check back at your site to see how their delivery is going.
The ISP is involved in each of these stages:
  1. Firstly, your inventory database must be accessible to your online customers. What products are available? Are they in stock now? How long will it take to be delivered? How much is it? Are there any discounts this week? Next, you need some shopping basket software to store their possible purchases in. More likely, you want an account system so each visitor to your site can have their own account for future purchases and customise their view of your site so the products they are most interested in appear prominently when they return.
  2. For the purchasing phase, you need to offer real-time transactions -- does the customer have a valid credit card? Do they have enough money/credit limit for this purchase? And, when they do purchase, you want to obtain their money as soon as you ship the product!
  3. Your inventory system needs to be adjusted, your accounts system needs to record the transaction, your shipping department need to process the order, you need to record the status of the transaction for the customer to be able to review it -- in short, your whole business needs to integrate with the information that is provided by the web site. So the final thing your ISP needs to help you with is security! Now that your systems are so accessible via the Internet, how can you ensure that this openness is not abused?
Q: What are the advantages of a large multinational ISP or a local level ISP?
A: Large multinational ISPs tend to have greater resources and possibly more experience with large e-commerce projects. Local ISPs are likely to try harder, and be more of a partner in your solution -- they are more likely to bend their systems to accommodate your needs .

A multinational ISP is going to find it easier to multi-home your online business (ie. physically locate it in multiple countries for speed and high availability), but this isn't necessarily a requirement for online business, since location independence is one of the fundamental benefits of going online!

If you foresee a large portion of your business being in the US, then you might like to consider hosting your service there, as prices are _much_ more competitive and the speeds are much higher. However, if most of your business will remain Australian, locating in the US can cost you time and money when there are irregularities with international links or in the US.

Q: What are the principal search engines and how do they work?
A: There are dozens of search engines, but I think it would be fair to say that most people are familiar with a couple of the biggest ones, Yahoo and AltaVista. Other big names are InfoSeek, Excite, HotBot and Lycos.

To start a search engine service, you need a BIG computer (or, more likely, a few big computers!), LOTS of disk space and a FAST network connection.

The big computers then grab a web page from the 'net, check it for keywords and content, add this information to their indexes and then follow any links from that page to other pages. One of my friends draws the analogy of building a phone directory by going from shop to shop, asking if they know the phone numbers of any other shops. In this way search engines roam through all the connected pages on the Internet. Thus, if no-one links to you, you may well not get listed in any search engine! Which leads us to the next question,

Q: How can an e-commerce operator best configure their site to find appropriate clients?
A: Most search engines have a page describing how their search engine orders/indexes pages and sort search results, and thus the best way in which to ensure people can find you. There are number of services which will submit your site to "all" the search engines, but since this is one of the premier ways people will find your products, it is probably much wiser to take care of this yourself, perhaps with some advice from experts you trust. If you are partnering with an e-commerce provider, they are sure to be able to advise you on this key aspect.

The other way of attracting customers is through advertising, either in other media or by banner ads. It is worth mentioning at this point that SPAM (unsolicited commercial email) is very poorly looked on on the 'net, and is likely to get your company blacklisted by many site administrators, as well as gaining you a reputation as an unsavvy (or unsavoury! :-p) e-commerce operator.

The best way to increase your online business is to offer good information about your products combined with fast, friendly service to enquires. People will come back if your information is relevant and the service is good. If your site is hard to use, incomplete or poor quality, or if your service is slow or impersonal, customers will go to the next website where things are better. Your biggest increase in business may well come from reputation and word of mouth, rather than huge advertising campaigns.

Where advertising is considered, public, high exposure media such as billboards, buses, taxis and television are often the most effective. If you can get people interested in your web site on the way to work, or on the way home, then they are quite likely to be curious enough to check it out when they get online. It's important to ensure that when these customers do arrive at your site, they find a quality product -- you only get one chance at this! They are very unlikely to come back for a later look "to see if things have improved" -- if it's bad, they'll move on, and never come back -- or perhaps only when one of their friends persuades them that it has changed.

On the 'word of mouth' front, affiliate programs are currently a popular and effective way of increasing online business -- this is where friends or associates refer people to your business for a cut of the profit -- usually a small credit towards their next purchase.

It is worth noting that not many online businesses actually make a profit at this time. The premier example of an online business success is, who are a very effective provider because they include a huge inventory, they discount the products (as compared to local mall prices) and they reward affiliates. Nonetheless, despite all their success (and their $5 billion+ valuation) they are still not making a profit!

Companies which don't follow the strategy of sites like, by only putting some of their range on its e-commerce site and not making it any cheaper than you could find at your local mall, are unlikely to generate much online business. Why struggle with something new when the old way is easier and better?

In summary, whilst e-commerce offers many new opportunities, and new challenges, it is not so different from every other market -- if you make it easy and attractive for the customer to access and purchase your products, you will receive business. If you make it difficult or uncompetitive, you may spend a lot of money on a white elephant!

Here's recent development showing just how important it is to look after your web page's indexing in search engines!
23 September 1999  Page-jacking
A Portugese cracker and an Australian company stand accused of
page-jacking Internet users by copying legitimate web pages and stealing
their metatags, invisible index keys for search engines.  The scheme
redirected users to pornographic sites when they clicked the "back" or
"home" buttons.
Q: Do you know of any e-commerce sites based in Melbourne that have been huge successes or huge failures?
A: I was involved in a very early e-commerce site -- online pizza delivery ( with a directory of Melbourne restaurants. I think it had the potential to be a huge success, but the financiers pulled out _way_ to early (like only a month or so after release).

It was an interesting and innovative project though!

Q: Please explain the concept of e-cash?
A: The basic principle is, instead of using your credit card for many small transactions, you make one large payment to an intermediary. Then, when you purchase things online, you debit the intermediary, much like a bank. In this way, the intermediary is a supplier of "electronic cash" -- they take care of your online finance exchanges, so you don't have to use your credit card in many places -- in theory, its more convenient and safer. In practise, most people don't mind using their credit cards (despite the fact that some banks refuse to honour their normal credit card guarantees for online transactions).

How to begin in e-commerce

I think the first question you need to ask yourself is 'how much do you want to spend?', which may well depend on how big you are.

There are a couple of cheap and easy ways to get in to e-commerce, the simplest is to just get an email address, and answer it regularly! (at least twice a day). Mum and Pop operations may well be happy with just getting a web page, and putting pictures of their product(s) up there, and allow ordering via email. A friend should be able to help them make some simple, attractive web pages.

Commercial operators are going to have to go about it more seriously, however. Small business should talk to your ISP about what e-commerce servers they offer. If they don't offer any direct services, see if they recommend anyone. It may be cheaper to break your e-commerce plans into two parts -- hiring a consultant to write a strategy, and then shopping around for an implementation team/contractor.

Large business will need to talk to some e-commerce experts. Again, you could start with whomever your ISP recommends, but you'll probably want to look at some leading examples of e-commerce in Australia, and find something you like and get that team to help you.

You need to be aware of some of the technologies/concepts that are required to get involved in e-commerce, including:

A review of existing e-commerce in Australia

Information about Ecommerce servers as extracted from DNS records, and

Overview -- it is my perception, and the current literature seems to support this, that the most effective e-commerce sites are those selling commodity items, such as CDs and books. People are unlikely to make major purchasing decisions about houses, cars, etc based solely on online information. However, it is very likely that those companies which do make such information readily available will attract in-person custom since the customer knows that the supplier already has the product they are interested in (that house in my suburb, that model car, etc).

It is worth pointing out that two very successful forms of e-commerce haven't really been reviewed in the below, specifically travel and classifieds (eg. The Melbourne Trading Post, netspace/telstra with IIS4). Online jobs sites are certainly popular, but perhaps aren't very commercial yet.

Australian Ecommerce hosts

is running web server on operating system ... (who registered our domain name?/who provides our connectivity?)
is running Apache/1.3.1 (Unix) on IRIX (hosted by
Fun, easy to navigate, information about coffee, instructions, FAQs, history -- lots of info to attract a coffee drinker back, and ordering looks pretty easy. This is a good product to put online, people are interested in coffees from other countries and prepared to pay a little more for a special coffee.
is running Apache/1.3.2 (Unix) (Red Hat/Linux) on Linux (hosted by
Simple, a little too brief. If the prices were good or delivery is very quick, I might shop here. But there is nothing to keep me coming back. They should tell me about organic foods, and how they are so much better, they should include some of their tips for foods, like the one about potatoes, and they should include recipes! At the moment, I would have to be someone who was already quite interested in their products to use it, there is nothing to persuade new customers here.
is running Apache/1.3.3 Ben-SSL/1.29 (Unix) on IRIX (hosted by
is running Apache/1.3.9 (Unix) PHP/3.0.11 on FreeBSD (hosted by
Site is somewhat difficult to navigate, their most significant product line appears to be a range of magazines, which has no apparent connection with their main purpose, Astrology. Confusing, I wouldn't go back.
is running Microsoft-IIS/3.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by
On of the first online shopping sites in Australia, and their experience shows. The site is easy to navigate, the products are displayed well and easy to buy. Has extra info about RM Williams, including how boots are made. My only criticism would be that the front page is far too long, requiring lots of scrolling.
is running Microsoft-IIS/3.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by
Smart, up-beat design, a little busy, a little difficult to navigate but I would probably push through that for the depth of information provided. Price seems quite reasonable for the benefits provided, this service is likely to be successful for its target market.
is running Microsoft-IIS/4.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by
A busy introduction screen and somewhat confusing navigation (get rid of the frames and javascript!). However, there is certainly a wealth of information here, it looks like quite a 'newsy' site that I could come back regularly to find out about wines and winegrowing. The navigation frustration might be enough to stop me from buying unless the prices were really good!
is running Microsoft-IIS/4.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by
A great idea! The site is attractive, but somewhat difficult to navigate, and not every link results in information as expected. Bite could greatly improve their service/results if they considered what the typical customer is going to do -- eg. order some food, a drink and maybe some sweets, and made it easy for customers to flow through this logical progression, rather than forcing them back to the menu for each step.
is running Microsoft-IIS/4.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by
Loud, full of interesting information and (apparently) fairly regularly updated. Sure to be a hit with its target audience. Unfortunately, the online store seemed to be out of action!
is running Microsoft-IIS/4.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by Have AmWay renamed themselves again? This looks like them, but maybe it's just a competitor. The site is modern and accessible, though somewhat slow. They could really do with some pictures of their products, and more in-depth info about them. Great potential to talk about 'how to use this cleaning product to clean that problem', but at the moment this site is only likely to attract those who are already interested in Dominant's products.
is running Microsoft-IIS/4.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by
Another site with a lot of information for wine lovers. This one is a little better laid out, although it still provides some navigation challenges, with a busy frame on the left and scrolling on the right. Two key strengths over the Wine Life site are in it's listing of products -- the RRP and online reviews -- this site has taken a few pages out of's book -- although they could learn some better site design from Amazon!
is running N-Space RWS 2.1 on Linux (hosted by
An innovative concept, endeavouring to make loans cheaper by avoiding big marketing and just providing the simple service -- loans, with online guides and applications. Personally, I think a bank loan is the kind of thing you do need some personal advice and assistance with, but if you're an regular investment home buyer and you know what you want, then you could save some money with eloan. The site seems to lack a certain depth, perhaps it needs some more charts or graphs worked in to the text or something to make it more interesting to use.
is running Netscape-Enterprise/3.6 SP1 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by A site with a lot of information but unlikely to get a lot of repeat business! :-) Probably the best place for this is in secondary schools, where a student counsellor can help students to find what they really want by giving them a bit of direction with the site and then letting them spend some time evaluating, etc. Personally I think this site would be better of using micropayments (charging a very small fee per document) than membership, but micropayment technology isn't really in place yet!
is running Netscape-Enterprise/3.6 on Solaris (hosted by
The premier feature of this site is its discussion board, which doesn't appear to work as expected because of the use of frames, but is still usable, and very informative. Product selection is a little non-intuitive (having to type in the number at the start, rather than the end) but each product has a graphic with a nice accompanying description -- I would probably shop here if my pet had a special need, and the price was right.
is running Netscape-Enterprise/3.6 on Solaris (hosted by
An interesting foray in to e-commerce, this is basically the Melbourne Big Online, but with lots of extra info, graphics and reviews. The e-commerce bit comes from businesses being able to pay for extra information/home pages for their product/business. Quite a useful resource for those looking to find out what's available in Melbourne (eg. restraunts, events, etc).
is running Netscape-FastTrack/2.01 on Solaris (hosted by Purchasing ticketing is a natural and intuitive thing to expect to do online, and the South Australian BASS have done just that. The site is somewhat brief but very easy to use, and includes seating charts for the major venues, so you can see just where you'll be sitting! Extending this site with reviews and pictures would greatly add to its value, and categorising events (eg. Musical, Food, etc) would certainly make choosing what to do easier.
is running WebSTAR/3.0.2 ID/66058 on MacOS (hosted by
The thing I found most intriguing about this site was its foreign language support. Apparently, they receive a lot of custom from Scandinavian countries! There appears to be a huge range of events to choose from, and the prices are low enough to make one want to make a quick bet, just to see! ;-) This site could certainly be enhanced with more information about the event, links to external sporting sites, reports on previous events, etc which can all help to make the correct betting decision.
is running WebSTAR/3.0 ID/878810 on MacOS (hosted by
I would expect that TechWorks rarely, if ever, deliver a product based solely on interactions through their web site. Online training requires significant development, and that development requires a lot of interaction to understand the pedagogical aspects involved. However, this site does showcase a few of TechWorks projects well, introducing a potential customer to their services.

Australian Banks
is running Netscape-Enterprise/3.6 SP2 on Solaris (hosted by
is running Microsoft-IIS/4.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by
is running Microsoft-IIS/4.0 on NT4 or Windows 98 (hosted by
is [NOT!] running ...? (hosted by

Some big web servers (for comparison)
is running Apache/1.3.6 (Unix) mod_ssl/2.2.8 SSLeay/0.9.0b on FreeBSD
is running Apache/1.3b5 on Solaris
is running Netscape-Enterprise/3.6 on Solaris
is running Stronghold/2.4.2 Apache/1.3.6 C2NetEU/2410 (Unix) on DIGITAL UNIX
is running unknown on FreeBSD
is running Netscape-Enterprise/3.5.1C on Solaris