You check your email every 30 minutes. You buy books on Amazon.com and gossip about stocks on a Yahoo! message board. So you're an official member of the Web generation, with a high-speed connection to the best of the Web world. Right? Well, pause for a download. Since the emergence of the Web as the defining medium of business communication, many of the basics of business life have been reshaped: where you get your news, how you search for information, what it takes to communicate with people.
One overriding challenge of the Internet economy is keeping up with the Net itself. You can't claim to be well informed about business unless you're well informed about the Web, which virtually changes by the nanosecond. What's your best information weapon? The Web, of course. For example, Serena Satyasai, of ExpenseVision, a Web startup in San Francisco, keeps tabs on the newest Internet companies with "VentureWire," an email newsletter from Technologic Partners. Maura LoMonico, of Britannica.com Inc., gets a dozen similar newsletters from sites like ClickZ Network that give her up-to-date information about the overall business of the Web.
This edition of @work is dedicated to helping you Web-ify yourself — making you more savvy about what it means to work online and putting the Web to work for you. A host of Internet executives will describe how they stay plugged in to what's going on. You'll also learn how to make your searches smarter and your Web writing stronger. So don't just sit there: Get clicking!
Have You Heard the News?
"The first thing you realize when you're launching a business is that you don't have time to read anything," says Philip Airey, 40, CEO of OurHouse.com, a home-improvement startup based in Evanston, Illinois. It's a paradox of working online. In a world that changes so quickly, there's an ever-growing amount to learn about new business models, new companies, and new ways of working. But everyone has less and less time to devote to learning. How can you keep up with what's new on the Web without spending all of your time surfing the Web — and never getting any real work done?
David L. Sifry, 31, CTO and cofounder of Linuxcare, a technical-service provider in San Francisco, has to stay current on one of the hottest topics on the Internet — the open-source operating system known as Linux. Among the many sites that Sifry monitors, NewsNow (www.newsnow.co.uk) is one of his most valued sources of up-to-the-minute news. "It's my favorite little secret site," he says. "It's really effective."
NewsNow gathers stories from many sources around the world, such as CNNfn, Bloomberg, Forbes, and Business Week, as well as from such portals as Yahoo! and Excite. The site adds new stories every five minutes and even provides the time of each posting next to each headline. After one quick search using the word "Linux," Sifry has the latest news from dozens of sources. He leaves NewsNow running in the background on his computer screen, so the very latest news is always right there.
But all that news isn't worth half as much if you hoard it. At Linuxcare, Sifry is the self-appointed "newshound for the company." He maintains an email-based mailing list to which he sends out relevant links to stories, along with his commentary, a few times a day. "It's a great way to facilitate good communications so that people share information across all the different lines of business," he says.
One time-honored way to stay on top of what's going on in business is to follow the money. Hoover's IPO Central (www.ipocentral.com) sends out its weekly email "IPO Update," a rundown of what's new in the public markets. It covers the most recent pricings and filings, along with a schedule of expected IPOs. While the site itself gives in-depth analysis of offerings, the weekly newsletter provides an easy way to scan them quickly. Meanwhile, internet.com Corp.'s daily email "Internet Stock Report" (http://e-newsletters.internet.com) presents news-driven analysis of what's happening with those dotcom evaluations. A typical recent headline: "Priceline.com: Patent-protected investment?"
If you're looking for even earlier-stage news, perhaps the best source is "VentureWire" (www.venturewire.com), the daily email newsletter from Technologic Partners. ExpenseVision's Serena Satyasai, 30, director of business development, uses the service to keep up with who's getting funded by whom. Not a rumor sheet, "VentureWire" is a way to get the skinny on dotcom companies and the high-tech sector.
That's not to say that there's anything wrong with rumors. Some of the best sources of Net information deliver gossip along with nitty-gritty news. A case in point: "Iconocast" (www.iconocast.com), the weekly email newsletter for Internet marketing. Yes, this online publication has lots of buttoned-up talk about page views, conversion rates, and personalization. But its real draw is the section called "the Jacobyte," which covers industry parties, company meltdowns, and the occasional intriguing job offer.
As with "VentureWire" and "Iconocast," it's often email newsletters — and not the sites with which they're affiliated — that are the real information sources for busy Net mavens. David Rosenblatt, 31, a senior VP of global technology solutions at DoubleClick Inc., in New York City, often reads the daily email newsletter "Digitrends Daily" (www.digitrends.net) from Digitrends.net. "I spend less than a minute on each one," he says. It covers online marketing. Andrew Susman, 31, president of New York City-based Studio One Networks, subscribes to internet.com Corp.'s weekly newsletter "@NY" (www.atnewyork.com) for insight into what's going on in the local new-media scene. Victoria Chang, 29, a marketing manager at Family Wonder, regularly scans the weekly headlines of eMarketer's "Weekly Newsletter" (www.emarketer.com) in order to get her industry-news fix.
Britannica.com's Maura LoMonico, 25, a producer for the Web site, gets a variety of similar newsletters, including the online-marketing updates from ClickZ Network (www.clickz.com) and the New York-centric daily dish from the "Silicon Alley Daily" (www.siliconalleyreporter.com). They may seem like a lot of clutter, but the newsletters actually act as filters, guiding you to what's relevant on the sites and reminding you to review them when you have time. "If I rely on visiting the Web sites themselves throughout the day, I probably won't get there," LoMonico explains. "This way, whenever I have a few minutes, I can catch up."
But no matter how many news sources and digests you subscribe to, there's just no substitute for having great human filters — friends and colleagues who visit lots of different sites and who know your interests. Darby Williams, 46, chairman and founder of CookExpress.com and an ex-employee of Microsoft, says that it's through his network of personal contacts that he gets most of his best scoops. "So many people — investors, old colleagues at Microsoft — know what I'm doing," he says. "I get lots of information that's relevant to me through a network of email friends."
User Interface Inc., a customer-relations company in San Francisco, encourages not only the sharing of information but also the group analysis of it. Anyone can call a "mind meld" — an informal meeting that happens about once a month to discuss topics that could affect the company's business. It's a way to filter out the industry's "noise" so that employees can determine what a new trend really means. "It's extremely valuable," says Jerry McLaughlin, 34, User Interface's director of company value. "A mind meld really helps you to think about things differently, instead of just staring into a screen all day."
Are You Smart About the Search?
What's the single-most-important skill to have when you're on the Web? Being able to find what you need. The bad news is, despite the proliferation of search engines — and their multibillion-dollar valuations — finding what you're looking for is getting harder, not easier. There's more data than ever to sift through — and a smaller chance of finding what you need.
But there are some really useful sites that make searching faster, easier, and more fruitful. One great launching pad is Proteus (www.thrall.org/proteus.html), a guide to the Web guides. This site makes it convenient to use a slew of search tools, from HotBot to Excite to Yahoo!, all from one place. Its motto: "Type once, search everywhere."
To keep up with the latest search options, visit SearchIQ (www.searchiq.com), an independent site that reviews and ranks dozens of sites on relevance, accuracy, and speed. It's the place to go for no-holds-barred search intelligence. For example, about the AllTheWeb site, SearchIQ quips, "It's like a dumb dog: It fetches everything whether you want it or not." SearchIQ keeps you abreast of the newest tools and steers you toward different strategies, depending on what you need.
Meta-search engines allow you to troll more pages per click than do directories like Yahoo! or simple search engines like AltaVista. The concept is simple: Sites like RedeSearch.com (www.redesearch.com), C4 (www.c4.com), and Ask Jeeves (www.askjeeves.com) search multiple engines at once for a more comprehensive reach. Basically, they do a search of a search.
For searches that are not quite as far-flung, one innovative strategy is to allow other Web surfers to be your guide. Google (www.google.com), an easy-to-use search engine, ranks sites based on the number of incoming links. Essentially a "popularity engine," Google is the first place to stop when looking for an organization's or an individual's home page, since the most relevant site is likely to appear right near the top. It's a way to harness the collective intelligence of the Web.
But deciding where to go based solely on popularity also has a flip side: You can miss out on great sites that fly "below the radar" and on new sites that haven't yet become popular. If you're looking for a way to tap into some of the lesser-known regions of the Web, go to WebRing (www.webring.org). "Web rings" are loosely affiliated groups of sites that have agreed to link to one another because they share a common topic. You can surf from site to site simply by following the links at the bottom of the page. There are rings of Bruce Springsteen-fan sites, auction sites, and every site in between. Use the Web-ring directory, RingWorld, to find the ring that is relevant to your topic from among the thousands of rings. In no time, you can become "lord of the rings"!
If what you're looking for is highly specific — for example, What are the patent laws in my state? — try a specialty search engine. There are thousands of engines on specific topics, from MP3 files to home loans. Beaucoup! (www.beaucoup.com) is a directory of other search options. Think of it as a Yahoo! for search sources. You can find a directory of specialty search engines on SearchIQ (www.searchiq.com/subjects). Ditto.com (www.ditto.com) is a search site devoted to helping you find pictures on the Web using key words. Sookoo (www.sookoo.com) is a search engine that tracks business strategies, from Net topics to interviews with management gurus.
But finding things on the Internet isn't just about trolling sites when you need some information. It's also about getting the information as it breaks. Company Sleuth (www.companysleuth.com) is a one-stop competitive-intelligence site for tracking public companies without the hassle of time-consuming surfing. All you have to do is enter the stock symbols of the companies that you want to stake out, and every day, Company Sleuth scours the Net looking for sec filings, analysts' ratings, stock rumors, patents, bulletin-board discussions, job postings, and other facts. You'll be sent an email, as often as once a day, linking you to the latest skinny on each company.
Have You Found Your Voice?
The Web isn't just about consuming what other people have created. It's also about sharing what you know with coworkers, partners, customers, and the world. But more than learning HTML or how to design a Web site, for most of us, online communication really means writing. And having writing facility on the Web sometimes means getting beyond some of the conventions of writing for print that we've all been trained for since grade school. It's harder to cast off those habits than you might think.
A good place to start learning how to become an online scribe is Charlie Morris's essay "Writing for the Web," on the Web Developer's Virtual Library (http://wdvl.com/Internet/Writing). The piece is a solid introduction to the basics of Web style. "Cut it down and open it up," counsels one section. You'll learn to write "a little tighter and meatier," thanks to the advice doled out here.
To get deeper into why Web writing really is different, look at a study on how readers read on the Web by usability guru Jakob Nielsen, at Writing for the Web (www.useit.com/papers/webwriting).
How do we read online? The short answer is, We don't. We scan. So you have to learn to write for scanners, not readers. Nielsen has a wealth of ideas about how to do this, including the liberal use of key words, subheadings, and bulleted lists.
To learn more about the Net-writing craft, listen to the writers and editors at "Contentious" (www.contentious.com), the online zine for Internet-content creators, where using links and other tricks of the trade are covered in depth.
But writing for the Web isn't just about making your concepts easy for humans to understand onscreen. It's also about communicating in a voice that's credible without being stuffy. The site that takes on the issue of tone most aggressively is the Cluetrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.com), which has a lot to teach about what online communication means. Does your Web writing sound like corporate double-speak? If so, it won't fly online. This site is a good place for a reality check.
Finally, if your idea of communication is having the Net media write about you, look at the guidelines established by the Internet Press Guild (www.netpress.org/careandfeeding.html). This sometimes-cranky document presents a wealth of practical hints for dealing with an online reporter who's working on deadline.
Katharine Mieszkowski (email@example.com), a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco, wants to upload her brain to the Web and be done with it.
Action Item: Always Connected
How can you get your daily dose of Web news without spending half the day trying to find it? Create a personalized news page on Yahoo! or Excite.
Both portals let you customize the day's headlines to get plenty of news about the Internet. If you want to track a specific publicly traded company, you can add its stock ticker to your page. Click on the symbol, and you'll receive quotes and links to stories.
Coordinates: Yahoo!, my.yahoo.com; Excite, my.excite.com
Sidebar: Gems of Information
To stay on top of what's happening on the Web, get "Geoff's Gems," a daily email newsletter. The newsletter is the handiwork of Geoff Baum, 31, cofounder and director of marketing for Garage.com. Baum spends two hours a day scouring the Web so you don't have to.
How does Baum suggest that you stay afloat in a sea of Web information? First, he says, you gotta start somewhere. "The Web is a huge library, but you can't stop and look at every book. You have to decide on a core group of information providers and stick with them as your base." Also, tap into your network. "The best search engines are human ones. My friends subscribe to lots of information services and email newsletters. I ask them to alert me to new things." Finally, don't forget to connect the dotcoms. "Insight comes from the connections you make. If you make it a practice to keep up with developments every day, then you begin to see different perspectives. That's the ultimate point of collecting all of this information."
Coordinates: Geoff Baum, firstname.lastname@example.org; "Geoff's Gems," www.garage.com/geoffsgems.shtml
Sidebar: Seek (Smart) and Ye Shall Find
Charlie Cook, 46, a marketing consultant based in Greenwich, Connecticut, is the human supersleuth of search engines. On his Web site, SearchIQ, he rates dozens of search tools, from well-known directories to obscure meta-search engines. SearchIQ also hosts a directory of hundreds of specialty search engines that cover specific topics, from U.S. patents to UFO-related sites. "If it exists in the world, then there's something about it on the Web," Cook says. "But can you find it?" The real problem with searching: Even the best search tools only cover a small percentage of what's out there. To sort through the confusion, Cook is an advocate of meta-search engines — essentially, search engines of search engines. Some of his little-known favorites: RedeSearch.com and C4. For superfocused searches, such as determining whether a phrase is trademarked, look for a specialty search engine on that topic. It's easier to find a needle in a small haystack than in a big one.
Coordinates: Charlie Cook, email@example.com; SearchIQ, www.searchiq.com
Sidebar: Do You Have the Write Stuff?
Thanks to the Web, you can reach tens of millions of people around the world. But you can only persuade them to pay attention with writing that's customized for the medium. Amy Gahran, 33, of Boulder, Colorado, is the founder of "Contentious," a Web zine for writers, editors, and others who create content for online media. What's her primer on how to write like a Web pro?
Cut the fluff. "Web users want questions answered quickly. If you're writing about a product, stick to the basics. Flashiness turns people off."
Don't write, organize. "Web users get information from all directions. So every page must stand on its own. A piece should have an introductory page, with links to and from all subsequent pages. And every page that follows should clearly identify, at the top, the larger piece of which it's a part."
It's all relative. "The Web is a one-to-one experience. People are willing to listen if what you're saying relates to them. Use the second-person 'you' more often than you would in print."
Coordinates: Amy Gahran, firstname.lastname@example.org; "Contentious," www.contentious.com
A version of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.