The next time you visit one of your favorite Web sites, you may be contributing to it as much as you're taking from it. That's just one of the trends speakers are discussing at this week's Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco.
Illustrating this trend is a recent study conducted by Pew Internet & American Life Project. More than half of all Web site visitors contribute, whether by providing personal information, taking surveys, or offering feedback in some other way, says the study, which was cited by Web 2.0 Conference Chair John Battelle.
One site that has taken customer participation to heart is Amazon.com, whose founder and CEO Jeff Bezos spoke at the event. By publishing an API (application programming interface) that allows people outside the company to interact with its proprietary data, Amazon is able to offer its customers services that would otherwise be unavailable, he said.
During his presentation, Bezos described the ScoutPal.com service that lets people use a special cell phone with a bar-code reader to scan their books to determine their value on the site. The service was developed by a programmer whose wife's avocation was buying and selling used books. "If we had to hire a software engineer to build this, it wouldn't be on the top of our priority list," said Bezos.
Amazon is looking to expand its reach into new areas of the Internet. While many Web users may say that Google is the unassailable king of search, that isn't dissuading Amazon from readying a challenge. Amazon's new A9.com service searches Web sites as well as the contents of books and other "offline" reference sources.
In addition, A9 lets you save a history of your searches, stored on a server. (Search companies Ask Jeeves and Yahoo have also recently announced the ability to save your Web searches.)
Another new name in search is Idealab's Snap.com, a service from Overture founder Bill Gross.
Snap is designed to anticipate what searchers do after they receive their results. For example, a search of the word "camera" delivers a table above the standard search results. The table shows the specs of the most popular cameras, as determined by past searchers. You can resort the table to show only cameras with specific attributes (more than 4 megapixels, for example) or to list models by a certain vendor, among other options.
This functionality demonstrates the first of what Gross described as the three new "breakthroughs" in search: user controls. The other two breakthroughs are user feedback (information based on what previous searchers did after receiving their search results, such as product listings from Walmart.com); and transparency (searchers can see how much advertisers spent for the ads appearing on each results page).
Another hot topic at the conference is online commerce. According to survey numbers presented by Gian Fulgoni, chair and cofounder of Web survey company ComScore Networks, e-commerce appears ready to skyrocket. As people move from dial-up to broadband Internet connections, their online spending increases 50 percent, Fulgoni pointed out.
Another boon for e-commerce: The rate of buying big-ticket items like furniture and jewelry is increasing faster than the purchase rate of standard e-commerce fare, such as books and CDs, ComScore's survey of 2 million Web users found.
Along with the actual purchases, more people are using the Web to do research before shopping.
"The Internet has emerged as the medium of choice for consumers making purchase decisions," Fulgoni said. He cites new-car buyers as an example: 70 percent of car-buying decisions involve online research, ComScore says.
The company also found that the rate of searching at car sites mirrors that of actual car sales. Another correlation was found between the number of people searching at online job sites and the jobless rate. The upshot, according to Fulgoni? "Online advertising should be getting a greater share of total ad dollars," he told the delighted conference attendees.