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Web Search & Marketing Newsletter - December 2006

Welcome to the latest edition of our monthly newsletter on web search and marketing issues.

In this issue we look at the forecast for online shopping in the build up to Christmas, based on the experiences from last year and trends this year. We also report on the agreement between the main search engines to use the same Site Maps system to help standardise the process for website owners, and we review some of the core issues that are now being debated in regard to the future development of the Internet.

To find out more, please read on below and follow the links to the full articles available on our website. If you want to refer to any items included in previous editions, you can find them here.

On to this month's news...

Online shopping trends for Christmas

A recent report on the UK’s online retail market by Hitwise has highlighted the trends in the market, with a particular focus on the build-up to Christmas 2005 so that forecasts can be made about expected activity in 2006.

The Internet traffic monitoring service provided by Hitwise (www.hitwise.co.uk) includes a Retail 100 Index in the UK that tracks 100 of the top online retailer sites, based on their share of UK visits in the previous month. Hitwise also report that 10% of every UK Internet visit lands on a site within their Shopping & Classifieds sector, with eBay holding the largest share of visits at 24%, followed by Amazon at 6%.

In the run-up to Christmas last year, Hitwise recorded a 7% growth in market share of UK visits to the Retail 100 Index sites compared to the previous year. This figure has grown by a further 10% in the year to August 2006 which indicates a further growth in the online shopping market for this Christmas period. Interestingly, the peak in traffic last Christmas came a week later than 2004, which may indicate higher confidence in consumers with delivery times and stock availability.

Using their data trends, Hitwise forecast an 8% year-on-year growth in UK traffic to retail sites this Christmas – not dramatic, but a further steady increase on 2005. The peak activity period is expected to be between 9th and 16th December, which is again later than 2005 due to further confidence in delivery times but also the growth on High Street brands on the Internet (as opposed to ‘pure-play’ web retailers) who tend to see later ordering peaks.

The role of search engines in generating online sales continue to grow, with a forecast referral rate of 35% in December this year, compared to 30% in 2005. Google and Yahoo! Search will continue to dominate the search engine share. A new element this year is also the impact of social networking sites, such as MySpace and Bebo, in referring traffic to retail sites. Although only expected to account for 3% of visits, these sites are now a major source of traffic and music retailers are expected to benefit as a result.

If you'd like to know more about this data and how your site could benefit from the Christmas sales period, please contact us for more details.

Standardised site map system helps indexing

During November, the ‘big 3’ search engines – Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft – have got together to agree a standardised system to allow website owners to submit their site details to the search indexes by using a unified format site map file. This is a positive move for all parties and may lead to further cooperation between the search engines in the future.

As we reported in our May 2006 newsletter, the Site Maps system was originally pioneered by Google to enable site owners to prepare and submit documents in a variety of formats that would indicate to Google which pages should be indexed. The main XML file format also allowed additional information to be provided as well, such as how often the page changed. The process was designed to increase the indexing capabilities of search engines – particularly of large, complex websites – and also make it easier for site owners to submit their sites to these tools.

This system was also introduced by Yahoo! and MSN, but this new agreement means that submitting a site map will now be a streamlined process that these main sites will all recognise. A new website (www.sitemaps.org) has been created to provide details of the document protocol that’s being followed, so site owners or web designers can use this to develop site map documents for the search engines.

Other search engines have been invited to share this common system as well and although not doing so at the moment, it would be good for Ask to introduce this to its own index, which still remains painfully slow to update information on new or revised websites. However, the cooperation between the 3 main search engines is a positive move and we may see more announcements of standardised procedures from them in the future.

If you'd like to know more about Site Maps and how these could benefit your website, or if you’d like us to review or create a Site Map file for your website, please contact us.

What is the future of the Internet?

A recent United Nations Internet summit held in Athens has raised a number of issues about the growth and future development of the Internet, not least of which is the increasingly thorny issue of the international domain names (IDN) protocol that uses English characters and is therefore seen to exclude other languages and alphabets.

This Athens conference saw the first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum, which was established by the UN to give multi-stakeholders the opportunity to debate the issue of Internet governance. All stakeholders - whether they represent states, the private sector or civil society - meet on an equal basis and through an open and inclusive process.

Nitin Desai, the chair of the IGF has spoken of his concerns about the future of the Internet. “People are concerned about whether the system we have now will also work five years from now,” he states. He believes that as Internet use in Asia grows, “there will be more Chinese web pages than English pages.” Mr Desai goes on to report of tensions about the regulation of the net - evidence of which first arose in March of this year when Chinese domain names were launched.

He goes on to report that the Chinese government is unhappy that users have to adopt Latin characters when accessing Chinese web pages and warns “we will get a Balkanisation of the net. There's a point at which the Chinese will say ‘We have to have domain names in Chinese characters' and they will set up an independent system.” This view is endorsed by Geir Rasmussen, chief executive of the Global Name Registry. “The Internet up to now has been mostly westernised, and some countries may feel disenfranchised as they can't access the Internet in their local language. I think this is about accessibility. Think if all westerners had to enter characters in Chinese script.”

The Athens meeting saw intense pressure on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – who manage the domain name system – to revise the IDN system as it was claimed that the Anglo-centric Internet left people isolated and marginalised. Concerns about a future split in the Internet should spur action on, but it’s not an easy solution. ICANN has been reviewing this system since 2003 but it’s a huge technical challenge and chief executive Paul Twomey has been quoted as saying that “the Internet is like a 15-storey building and with IDN what we’re trying to do is change the bricks in the basement.”

At this stage there is no simple solution, but it is an issue that is becoming more significant as the web continues to grow at a rapid rate. One thing is certain, it will need to be resolved to the satisfaction of every nation in the long run if the Internet is to become a truly global and neutral resource.

We hope you've found this month's newsletter informative. Please contact us if you need any more details on the items covered, or our advice on any aspect of your website's performance. Also, if there are any issues you would like to see in future editions of this newsletter, please submit your suggestions.