For anyone doing business online, commerce meets collaboration at a Web 2.0 portal — a mutual touchpoint for a company, its partners and customers (plus all their contacts) as well as a personalized filter of information and services found on the Web.
The goal: aggregating high-value information about people, products and services — reducing time spent searching Web resources for information, reducing the overload of found information while increasing its relevancy, delivering key information to places it can be used effectively, and alerting recipients to its presence and availability.
Part 1 of this series discussed the changing role of portals in a Web 2.0 world. Portals are also changing as e-commerce evolves. The driving force behind all this activity is basic human nature, according to fashion blogger Kristopher Dukes.
“People always want what’s simple and intuitive,” Dukes told the E-Commerce Times. “People are either too stupid or too busy to figure things out.”
E-Business and E-Commerce Web Portals
A standard corporate e-business Web portal used for much of a company’s online business presence can encompass internal business systems (CRM, ERP, HR), enterprise communication and collaboration (e-mail, voice mail, VoIP, content management, business process management), and e-commerce for transmitting funds, goods, services and/or data between businesses (B2B) or between the business and its retail/e-tail customers (B2C).
Web 2.0 technologies have amped up these basics, becoming a driving force within today’s e-business industry. Included in the new e-business portal model are Web-based communities and hosted services such as social networking capabilities, wikis, blogs and folksonomies aimed at facilitating creativity, collaboration and sharing among users. Rich Internet application (RIA) techniques based on Ajax, Adobe Flash, Flex and Java improve the user experience in browser-based applications. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds from news sites, blogs, wikis and enterprise applications send information where it’s wanted — the Web, mobile devices, e-mail clients and desktops.
Web 2.0 has greatly impacted the e-business role of e-commerce — sales of goods and services where an order is placed by the buyer or price and terms of sale are negotiated over the Internet, an extranet, electronic data interchange (EDI) network, electronic mail or other online system. Payment may or may not be made online. Considered in this way, total e-commerce sales for 2007 were estimated at US$136.4 billion, an increase of 19 percent from 2006, according to the most recent estimates from the Census Bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
What They Are
Web portals are Web sites that function by aggregating data from a large number of providers. E-commerce Web 2.0 portals also do this while providing richer content and more rewarding experiences.
“The portal (now) becomes a composite front end that integrates disaggregated services into a coherent, fluid user experience,” wrote Simeon Simeonov in E-Commerce 2.0 — The Velvet Revolution.
Previously, in a portal, the various pieces of content were often independent of one another, according to Simeonov. In the e-commerce 2.0 portal, everything is highly integrated from a data and user experience standpoint.
“The portal front end will initially run in parallel to the existing e-commerce 1.0 site because e-tailers will experiment and make the switch to e-commerce 2.0 gradually,” said Simeonov. “Pieces of the front end will be embeddable in other sites. (Yes, even as MySpace widgets.)”
Variety of Portals
The world of consumer e-commerce provides a range of e-commerce portals:
The big-box general merchandise retailers like Wal-Mart, HomeDepot, Kroger, Costco and Target, with their extensive logistics and supply chains, all have brick-n-click, dot-com online presences. Vertical affinity service providers like iVillage and WebMD offer a shopping component on their Web sites. The big Web-only shopping portals include eBay, Amazon.com, BizRate.com, MySimon.com, Yahoo Shopping, NexTag.com, Overstock.com, Shopping.com, Pricerunner.com, PricingCentral.com, MSN Shopping, Shop.com and Shopzilla.
All of these portals are beginning to adopt Web 2.0 functionality, but it’s eBay and Amazon.com — the 1990s e-commerce portal pioneers — that have perhaps most fully engaged with Web 2.0. For example, APIs from eBay facilitate program-to-program auction management. Amazon provides a set of retail APIs that allow developers to create computer programs that make use of Amazon’s sophisticated online retail infrastructure. Third party software developers have used this to create specialized storefronts.
Since 1999, eBay has offered the eBay API to enable developers to communicate directly with the eBay database in XML (extensible markup language) format, essentially turning its Web site into a platform. eBay Community has a feedback forum, chat rooms, discussion boards, news and more. eBay Wiki allows members to offer their own expertise on any eBay topic they care about. eBay Blogs lets members create their own blogs to promote their businesses, discuss favorite topics, products, eBay stores and more.
Amazon launched Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2002. The service provides software developers, Web site owners and merchants with access to many behind-the-scenes features on Amazon’s Web site. AWS teamed up with Facebook in early 2008 to help developers build instantly scalable applications. Customers in Amazon’s online community can personalize Web pages and create content, including product reviews, online recommendation lists, wish lists, image uploads, buying guides and customer discussions. Amazon describes Amapedia, its lightly promoted Wikipedia clone, as “a community for sharing information about popular products.” The Amazon Daily blog (formerly known as “Plogs”) contains posts from throughout the Amazon site.
Social Commerce Portals
Social commerce involves customer-driven merchandising across a number of online properties to promote sales. The goal is to connect customers to one another in ways that drive measurable results to a company’s business. Social commerce sites like Kaboodle, ThisNext, Wishpot and StyleHive combine two of the Web’s most prominent activities: engaging in commerce and chatting with other like-minded people. The sites don’t directly sell things, but they encourage users to share links to good bargains, obscure finds, products that work and ones that don’t.
Social commerce brings in the rest of the Web 2.0 compendium such as user-generated content (some of it pulled from blogs and wikis, the rest captured on e-commerce sites), trust/reputation building and information discovery and management through folksonomies and social networks.
Kaboodle.com is a social network based on shopping and is designed to put its community members in touch with other shoppers who have similar interests in products. As members grow to know the community, their product reviews become more relevant based on recognition of some of the reviewers. Kaboodle is a distributed application, according to Kaboodle CEO Manish Chandra, and aggregation and distribution are where the global economy is heading.
“When you have too broad a collection of products, as with eBay, the discovery process is not well facilitated, and social interaction is missing,” Chandra told the E-Commerce Times. “This restricts users in ways that create boundaries in the shopping experience. We’re about empowering them to create experiences for themselves without boundaries.”
ThisNext.com is an online media and social-shopping portal where people “shopcast” — find, recommend and share their favorite products for others to discover and purchase online based on word-of-mouth recommendations from trusted sources called “influencers” or “mavens.” A BlogIt tool enables ThisNext members to shopcast by posting lists, tags, recommendations or wish lists to their blogs, MySpace profiles or anywhere that supports HTML (hypertext markup language).
ThisNext is not so much a portal as it is “a very large node on a much broader network, a product recommendation layer on the entire social Web,” ThisNext CEO Gordon Gould told the E-Commerce Times.
“We distribute different pieces of functionality that can be plugged in elsewhere on the Web and so have a much greater opportunity than just being a portal. As essentially a service layer, there is no Web destination site per se. Web 2.0 was about sharing. Web 3.0 is an information filtration service.”
Wishpot.com is a free social shopping service aimed at making it easy to save and share interesting things found in stores and online. Wishpot for Facebook lets people share their favorite products, give gift suggestions and discover what their friends like and recommend — all within Facebook.
“Social shopping sites are definitely already more semantic than general Web 2.0 sites,” Wishpot CEO Max Ciccotosto told the E-Commerce Times. “They do a lot of interesting things with the concept of ‘product;’ they are able to scrape for this info, parse it, etc. They are filtered gateways.”
Stylehive.com is a social bookmarking community focused entirely on products and shopping using a wishlist of a member’s desired items. The Stylehive “badge” works with the Stylehive site and allows members to display pictures of their favorite products on a blog or Web site.
Stylehive CEO Michael Carrier also doesn’t see social shopping Web sites as portals. “Social shopping is Web 3.0, which is to say it is a blend of Web 1.0 (content) and Web 2.0 (social),” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Web 3.0 is about sites like the Stylehive, where the content of the Web — in this case shopping content — is filtered through your trusted social group. This type of site gives the user the ability to control what they see by controlling the group of trusted recommenders.”
Despite this added energy for online shopping, JupiterResearch has found that the growth of social networks and online communities has had little effect on influencing online retail sales. In a July 2007 report, the firm said that social and community sites are only driving about 12 percent of online shoppers to buy more than planned.
Business to Business
B2B Web sites can generally be sorted into company sites, product supply and procurement exchanges, brokering sites that act as intermediaries between someone wanting a product or service and potential providers. (e.g., equipment leasing, information sites, sometimes known as “infomediaries”), and specialized or vertical industry portals. Portals provide a sort of “sub-Web” of information, product listings, discussion groups and other features. These vertical portal sites have a broader purpose than the procurement sites (although they may also support buying and selling).
In creating new venues for the social scene, social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Friendster and the like have helped open the way for business users to adopt similar techniques to network and generate new business leads. The efficiency of online communities at sharing and prioritizing information are transforming enterprise business processes. Business networking services such as LinkedIn and Mzinga bring Web 2.0 social networking techniques to business users.
Two Web 2.0 B2B e-commerce portals are the Chinese operations Globaby.com and Alibaba.com.
Globaby.com calls itself a “B2B 2.0 portal” and professional marketplace specially designed for purpose-driven shopping and open to any suppliers of cost-effective products. Personalized Globaby locations called “MyHouse” let buyers register their suppliers and manage orders on the site. Buyers can leave messages for suppliers for further communication and invite suppliers to bid.
Alibaba.com asserts that it is the “#1 ranked international B2B trade portal.” Specializing in English-language B2B trades, Alibaba.com is designed specifically for international buyers trying to get into contact with Chinese sellers. The MyAlibaba Community function allows members to add and update products, check messages, post trade leads and more.
Christopher S. Rollyson is founder and chief editor of the Global Human Capital Journal, which explores emerging phenomena like Web 2.0, social networking, innovation and globalization. He sees Web 2.0 following this trend.
“Web 2.0 and social networks have been largely seen as idle curiosities by all but the most B2C-centric executives, but that began to change in 2007,” wrote Rollyson in his “Year in Review 2007: A Slow Boil Overture to Pervasive Social Transformation.” Social networks, he asserted, “will cross the ‘enterprise adoption’ chasm in 2008. Most consumer-facing companies and brands will have to develop robust social network offerings to remain relevant, and B2B executives should create and execute strategies in 2008. The accelerating adoption of LinkedIn and Facebook by B2B executives in 2007 means that they are getting experience with these spaces and tools, which will change their expectations and drive further adoption in 2008 to 2010.”