Introduction

The North East is among the top-ranking regions in the UK when it comes to trading online, with more companies than ever before doing business via the web.

Recent research also puts the North East in first place for the number of businesses stating competition as a driver for ICT implementation and second on a range of performance indicators including: the number of businesses gaining/sharing ICT knowledge with support organisations, the number of businesses measuring the cost of technology and the number of businesses measuring the benefits of technology.

These are just some of the findings of the Government's International Benchmarking Survey 2004, which is widely recognised as one of the primary tools used by the Government in assessing ICT adoption.

In 2001, the North East was ranked bottom out of 12 in the annual benchmarking league table. Now, just four years on, the region has moved up to sixth place. Although a one place decline in the rankings in 2003, the North East's success means that it is now a shining example of good practice, with other regions around the UK seeking to emulate its success. It is this race to play catch-up which most likely accounts for the region dropping a place this year, rather than it being evidence of the North East falling behind.

What this report highlights is that ours is now truly an electronic world - a phenomenon which owes its success in part to the rise of the Internet and the use of the World Wide Web.

Not only has the World Wide Web eroded the time required to turn an idea into a new product or service and make it available to the entire world; its easy feedback mechanisms, such as email and websites, have also made it possible for designers to remain at the forefront of consumer requirements; continually evolving their work to meet the needs of the market.

        the North East's success means that it is now a shining example of good practice

Many companies have already recognised these advantages and are using the web more innovatively and pervasively than ever before - indeed, the survey reports that there are more North East businesses trading online (34 per cent), ordering online (55 per cent) and paying for goods and services online (32 per cent) than ever before.

Using the Internet

The North East also ranks third for the number of businesses with a website (88 per cent) and fifth for use of external email (95 per cent). But there are still many benefits to business that remain largely under-exploited due to a lack of skills or knowledge of the resources out there.

Accepting that the web's many facets are more than we can ever hope to cover in this one edition, we will restrict ourselves to shedding light on some of the most common business usages, removing some of the jargon associated with the Internet and giving a bit of insight of what's around the corner for businesses in terms of the World Wide Web.

The Internet and the World Wide Web

As a quick introduction to what is to follow, it is first necessary to make the distinction between the Internet and the World Wide Web. Though the two terms are pretty much interchangeable in conversation, there is a difference which can be quickly explained as:

  • The Internet is older than the World Wide Web; it forms the framework while the Web is an application which is built on top of it.

More on this can be found at www.w3c.org

Uses of the World Wide Web has many advantages for your business; some of which are explored in greater detail below:

Finding Information To Drive Forward Your Business

Search Engines

The advent of the web as a resource presents an interesting situation for businesses; its sheer size means that businesses now have an incomparable amount of information at their fingertips, but taking advantage of this resource as a means of driving forward your business requires a certain level of knowledge. After all, a basic web search may throw up millions of pages but this is of little utility in business where the old adage remains true: time is money.

Common usages of the web in business include:

  • researching competitors - both near and far
  • researching how competitors market their products/services online e.g. via their website
  • sharing information
  • comparing prices when buying and selling
  • collecting data on your marketplace/product/service - yielded through research published on the web
  • researching current business trends

Search engines are the most common way of narrowing down your search - whether your chosen vehicle is Google, AOL, Yahoo or MSN (four of the big hitters in the search engine stakes) - you still require a certain level of proficiency to produce a result that is realistic, manageable and ultimately along the lines of what you're looking for.

Google

Tips for using search engines to maximum effect include:

There is no need to use "AND" in your search terms; any words entered will be automatically "joined" in the search. You should also be aware that common words such as "like", "how", etc will be automatically ignored by most search engines.

A method to include these common words or be sure your search returns what you want is to utilise a 'phrase search' - this involves putting all the words you are seeking in parenthesis in the order that you wish them to appear e.g. "London's Olympic Bid".

Search engine technology is in a continual process of development and there are search engines such as Ask Jeeves (www.ask.com) which search on your complete query - though this may ultimately be based on a smaller data resource than Yahoo, Google, etc.

Google in particular has a number of interesting new services in development (see maps.google.co.uk and Google Suggests at www.google.com/webhp?complete=1 in particular) and other large organisations are looking to get a slice of this very profitable enterprise. Look for rivals Microsoft (search.msn.com) and Amazon (www.a9.com) to make interesting moves over the next twelve months or so.

However, the sheer volume of information available on the Web can seemingly restrict its utility as an information resource - especially for those businesses that are not confident enough in their ability to manipulate the information that is theoretically at their fingertips. One way around this problem when searching for information on a particular topic is to use a web portal.

Web Portals

The obvious question is what, if anything, makes a web portal different from our traditional perception of a website?

A web portal is in effect a website but it is more specialised in its purpose. Web portals are used to group together similar subjects to attract a specific - and usually significant - audience.

Web portals therefore act as a starting point for users who are interested in sharing or researching information of a specific kind, or who are united by demographics or a common purpose or profession. In this way, web portals represent a logical evolution in the way in which businesses use the web; making the vast array of material available more accessible through the grouping together of information on similar subjects, as well as facilitating communication between large groups.

There are many different kinds of web portals including:

  • Niche portals
  • Business-to-business portals (B2B) where specific businesses can go for information sharing, and transactions, for example sourcing and buying supplies in a particular industry
  • Demographic focused portals such as n-e-life.com which caters for the North East community and will be further considered in our case study below

n-e-life.com

n-e-life.com was established in 2001 and is an example of one of the fastest growing types of web portal - one which unites people of a certain demographic - in this case people of the North East region.

Sunderland, showing the Stadium of Light

Regional Development Agency One NorthEast created n-e-life.com in 2001 in response to reports and DTI rankings highlighting the exceptionally poor take-up of Internet services by businesses, public sector bodies, communities and individuals in the region. Now, the North East has one of the highest take-ups of Internet services in the country, and over 67,000 businesses in the region are online with n-e-life.com.

The portal provides represents North East England online, with information divided into three zones relating to the residents, visitors, and businesses in the region. As a gateway for the North East of England, n-e-life.com aims to drive quality traffic to regional online communities and websites: it is an effective

signpost to thousands of sources of further information, as well as hundreds of articles and features that aim to represent the region in a positive, professional and engaging manner, and aims to inform, inspire and entertain.

n-e-life.com is also an effective promotional platform for businesses, aspiring writers and journalists. The portal has over 300 contributors providing articles, news, features and links on a regular basis. The portal has over 200,00 links to sources of further information, 300,000 pages of content, and around 50 pages are added every week.

Other portals focus more on areas of endeavour or interest, rather than geographical areas and often have communities built around them, attracting people from all over the world. For instance, sitepoint.com has nearly a quarter of a million subscribers and provides newsletters, articles and discussion for web developers everywhere.

Internal Business Communications

Despite its strong performance in other areas, the North East scored very poorly in the Government's survey on its use of internal networks and the integration of internal

systems with just 21 per cent of businesses in the region demonstrating both - the lowest proportion in the UK - though relatively large proportions of businesses are either currently integrating their internal systems (13 per cent), or are planning to do so (31 per cent).

Moreover, of those that do trade online, the region has recorded declines in the proportion of businesses that either have systems integrated with customers, or have systems integrated with suppliers.

wires

What we can tell from this is that, although the Internet has become an essential tool for the small business community - helping them grow their businesses and sustain vital business relationships - many businesses still shy away from going that extra mile and using it to create internal networks that can help make the Internet an even more valuable tool in business.

The key to this is Intranets and Extranets: these are two types of network that build on the global network model of the Internet to make the latter work even harder for your business.

Intranets and Extranets: The What's and Why's Of These Internet-Based Networks

Most people will be familiar with the words 'Intranet' and 'Extranet' since these are terms which are often banded around in business. But what they are used for exactly and how they differ from each other are usually lesser-known facts.

Simply put, an Intranet is a private, Internet-based network that can be viewed only by employees of a single organisation. This network, therefore, serves as a company-wide information system, replacing notice boards etc. As such, typical Intranet content could include the corporate directory, a calendar of events or a procedures manual. It can give employees access to company documents or software, such as that for project management, relationship management or knowledge management, whilst letting individuals and departments publish information they need to communicate to the rest of the company. Centralising the information in this way facilitates the flow of information between employees and allows them to better plan the way they work, not only with each other, but also with clients.

An Extranet, on the other hand, extends a company's internal network beyond the boundaries of the organisation to make selective information available to external parties such as clients, suppliers and business partners.

Therefore, while an Intranet will be accessible from the business premises or using equipment therein, an Extranet can be accessed from external resources and connections.

Often seen as the reserve of larger organisations, this sort of system is now simple enough, and more importantly, cost effective enough, for small businesses to exploit - and the reason for this can be traced to the explosion of the Web and the increased interest and standardisation of the underlying technology. In fact, the differences between Intranets, Extranets and websites now revolve more around the way they are used than anything else.

For example, Intranets are definitely one area where one size rarely fits all, with different companies having very different requirements and priorities. This accounts for the huge amount of choice you will inevitably be presented with when looking for systems to meet your business requirements; from off-the-shelf software to completely bespoke development, from open source and freely available systems to very expensive enterprise class products and support. All have pros and cons and it's a matter of matching these with your business.

The Future

It is important to note that the Internet is still relatively new and its real impact on business is only becoming clear as time passes and businesses rise and fall. However, one thing that is for certain is that the pace of new technology will see a continuing stream of new business-worthy advancements and new ideas; many of them built on top of the existing Internet and the web.

But a warning to those who are easily seduced by new technologies: even if you are confident of its advantages, be sure that you also consider its downsides, particularly with a view to its impact on your business - like most things, it's a matter of balancing cutting-edge features and capabilities with stability and ease-of-use.

One advancement to look out for over the next year or so will be the increase in ways of using content from websites, leading to more control for the end user and more personalisation. Amazon has been a leader in this field, both with its overall site and its web services tools (www.amazon.com/gp/aws/landing.html) which allow developers to utilise the data from Amazon's database in new and interesting ways.

The recently launched BBC backstage service (backstage.bbc.co.uk), which is seeking people to suggest and develop web applications using its information - from news stories and sports scores to programming times - is another good example of this. Even small companies will be able to take advantage of doing something similar - again look out for pioneers in this area.

What this will mean, even for casual web users, is easier access to oft-used content - such as news stories, or task lists, and in a manner that suits the individual user.

Even as a relatively new industry, web development is growing up - drawing ever more professional practices and ideas from more established software niches. This is leading to a new breed of web applications that are combining the ease of use and polish of desktop-based software programmes with the flexibility and ease of access that the web brings. For examples of this, check out Google's online mail service, Gmail (www.gmail.com) or Basecamp, a hosted project management system (www.basecamphq.com).

        the North East's success means that it is now a shining example of good practice

With services such as email and instant messaging the Internet has always been used for working together and an increasing number of different ways of allowing disparate individuals to collaborate remotely. In particular lookout for products, including software called 'wikis', used extensively amongst the software community, to make a break out with offerings tailored for other documentation-heavy industries.

See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki for more details - wikipedia being a good example of such an offering, it being an encyclopedia with over 13,000 active contributors and 1.7 million articles created over the last 4 years or so. del.icio.us is another good example - offering a social bookmarking system which not only makes it easy to store bookmarks in one place but also to find similar bookmarks from people with similar interests. Expect to see ideas like this cropping up in commercial software.

We've touched on a few potential Internet-based developments here but others that are set to have a real impact on business include broadband TV, Voice over IP (on a simple level, phone calls using the Internet), let alone the impact of bloggers on everything from political campaigns (www.blogsforbush.com) to new product launches (www.macrumors.com).

However, that's your lot for now: for more information on any of the topics that we've touched on here - or indeed, to find out more about making the Internet work for your business, please contact Gareth Rushgrove, Senior Developer in Digital b, a division of The bgroup on 0191 261 1333 who will be happy to answer your queries.

 
      
 
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