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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS / LAWRENCE MAGID

Is a Phone Number Too Much to Ask?

January 12, 1998|LAWRENCE MAGID

As useful as the World Wide Web is--and it's getting better every day--I'm continually amazed at how difficult it can be to find simple information in cyberspace. Finding the Web site for a company or organization is easy. If you know the organization's name, you can usually just enter it in your browser, followed by the domain designation .com, .org, .edu, .net or .gov (for companies, organizations, educational institutions, net services or government bodies). If that doesn't work, you can search for it on Yahoo, Alta Vista, or another search tool (for a directory of search tools go to http://www.larrysworld.com/searching.html).

What bothers me is what happens when you finally get to a site. The other day I was trying to find the telephone number for Dataquest, a leading computer consulting and analysis firm owned by Gartner Group. Pointing my Web browser to http://www.dataquest.com got me to the proper home page, but only after seemingly endless wandering among the site's numerous pages did I finally find an address and phone listing for the company's East Coast parent company. There, in turn, an operator gave me the number I needed.

I would have been more impressed if there had been a "Contact" link on the home page that took me to a directory of office addresses and phone numbers as well as names and e-mail addresses of key staff people. It's hard to understand where Web designers get the notion that people surfing the Net have given up on all other forms of communication, like mail and the phone system. But too many business sites seem to leave potential customers with no way to get in touch with their proprietors other than by e-mail. Don't get me wrong: E-mail is great, but no one would mistake it for an interactive form of communication. Sometimes what you want is to get someone on the phone.

Companies large and small are using the Internet to sell products and services, but I'd be reluctant to buy anything from a company that doesn't publish its street address and phone number. A visit to Golden Dreams Jewelry's Web site (http://www.lcc.net/~traces/gdreams.html) yielded lots of photos and descriptions of discount jewelry but no phone number or address. There was a link to the inevitable e-mail address but no other way to contact the company. This may be a perfectly legitimate business, but I'd feel a lot more comfortable if I at least knew where in the world it was located.

Even if a site does list an address, don't assume that it's an actual office or storefront. It could be a drop box at a mail collection facility such as a Mail Boxes Etc. If you can find a phone number, you can at least have a conversation with someone, which might give you a clue as to whether you want to do business with the company.

There are a few convenient tools to help nail down who is behind a Web site and where they might be. In some cases you can find out who runs a site by tracing its domain registration through InterNIC, the organization that assigns primary Internet domains. The group maintains a Web page (http://rs.internic.net/cgi-bin/whois?) that lets you look up information about any site with its own domain name.

If you enter apple.com, for example, you'll find the mailing address of the computer company and the name, phone number and e-mail address of the person who registered the site.

One sure way to keep people from getting useful information from a site is to load it down with graphics. I like pictures as much as anyone else, but if I'm surfing for information, the last thing I want to do is wait for a large graphic to load. I don't know whether a picture is really worth a thousand words, but when it comes to the Internet, a picture can be as bulky as several tens of thousands. The graphics on the front page to IBM's Web site (http://www.ibm.com), for example, take up nearly 42,000 bytes, the equivalent of nearly 8,400 words.

To visit that page you have to wait while those graphics load, which can give you enough time, depending on your modem speed and general Internet congestion, to read the latest issue of PC magazine while you're waiting. By contrast, Yahoo's site, which is sparse on its use of graphics, loads almost instantly.

At least IBM doesn't require you to load in any extra software to visit its home page. Try visiting Microsoft Network at http://www.msn.com. To get past the main screen, you're required to download and install a Shockwave ActiveX plug-in. You're informed that it "takes less than two minutes" to download the required software (good luck), but waiting even two minutes is a drag when all you want is a little information.

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