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Marketing in the internet – as seen from Italy

No. 48 – August 11, 2000



loghino.gif (1071 byte) 1. Editorial: The unmangeable size of the web

It’s practically impossible to keep track of the size of the world wide web – or, more broadly, the quantity of materials available online. There have been several attempts to measure (or “guesstimate”) its size and each time someone comes up with a larger figure. Research by a South Dakota organization, BrightPlanet, estimates that the mass of online information is 500 times bigger than the maps provided by search engines. According to this analysis, there are over 550 billion documents on the net, while only about a billion are indexed through all the search engines combined.

Even the largest search engines only locate “surface” information; and most are incapable of keeping pace with the growth of web content. A year ago it was estimated that a million new pages were added every day. Now someone says five million. If we believe the analysis by BrightPlanet, the additional daily volume could be as large as 50 million.

It’a been obvious for quite a while that search engines have limitations, because the mass of material available is too large. There is a lot of material that they can’t find while, on the other hand, they often find “too much” and even with “smart” search solutions it’s very difficult to narrow down the results to a manageable size. It’s becoming more and more obvious that we need new starting points and new ways of exploring the net; to gain a wider reach and, at the same time, to avoid drowning in “information overload”.

Of course search engines can be quite useful if used effectively (and that isn’t always easy). But there are other ways. For instance, if I’m looking for information on a book or an author sometimes I find it faster by going to Amazon (or a local online library if it isn’t in English) than by using a search engine. And there are newsgroups, mailing lists, personal contacts, sites with useful links on specific subjects... there have always been many ways of looking for information and there is a fairly wide range of not-so-obvious (and not automatic) procedures that can be used online. The problem is that it takes time, patience – and imagination. And one is often left with the feeling that there may be something really interesting, out there, somewhere, maybe just one step out of reach...

What we need is a much greater development of specialized resources, that by concentrating on specific subjects can provide depth as well as better management of content. This is easy in theory, quite complex and time consuming in practice. The problem is that too many resources are concentrating on the unmanageable “general” mapping of the net, because too many organizations are going for “big volume” (because they think that’s where they can make money easily – or “manage” traffic so they can point it where it’s more convenient for them or their sponsors) instead of providing specialized resources and helping people to find what they want.

I am meeting more and more people who (like me) find it extremely boring, and not very useful, to spend a lot of time “surfing” or wandering around the web. This includes new users who get quickly disappointed as well as experienced people with little time to waste. There is no single “internet”. There has always been a vast variety of networks and communities, each with an identity of its own. Many more are born every day. Some are flimsy and shallow, but some have depth and will improve over time. There is no better way of using the system than tailoring it to our needs and finding communities that suit our inclinations. It takes time to find the right environment, but when it works it’s much more rewarding than wondering around the surface of deep waters that no superficial “surfer” will ever be able to explore.

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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 2. IT resources in Europe

The Bocconi University in Milan has carried out a complex study of information technology resources in eight European countries, the United States and Japan. The methodology isn’t well explained and the meaning of data is unclear; however if one of Italy’s leading business schools thinks the resulting index is meaningful the information may be worth reporting.

The study uses six different criteria to define the level of “digitalization”. There are graphs for each in the Italian version of this newsletter (they should be easy enough to understand even by readers who don’t know the language). The outcome of their analysis is an overall “digitalization indicator” that shows considerable differences in the ten countries examined.


This “indicator” confirms the findings of other studies: the strength of Northern Europe and the leadership of the UK as the most advanced of the “large” economies in the European Union. The poor result for France is somewhat surprising – and the differences in other surveys appear less dramatic. But most findings seem to agree on the fact that there are substantial differences in the development of European countries in the use of information technology.


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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 3. Internet “users” in Italy

In the next issue we shall publish some data on internet use in Italy, based on two different pieces of research. In the meantime, here is the picture as seen by the “Internet Observatory” of Bocconi university (in a totally different study from the one mentioned above on the use of information technology).

According to this source, there are now 8.5 million internet “users” in Italy, with a 40 percent increase over September-October 1999. People connecting from home are 5.8 million (up 56 percent), from the office 3.7 million (up 26 percent) and 800,00 from school or university (up 40 percent). As in all such research, the numbers are probably overestimated; but there are relevant changes in usage patterns. One of these is the increase of home use, while in Italy traditionally there were more people connecting from the workplace. Women are 31 percent (fewer than in other research results) but increasing: up 49 percent from September-October 1999 (men 37 percent).

This research confirms the trend, that we had seen in past months in other surveys, to a much more balanced geographical distribution.

Internet “users” by area

Southern Italy (that was found very weak in the information technology survey) is still below the national average in internet use, but reducing the gap. The North-West was traditionally dominant but now the differences with the North-East and Center are practically negligible.

There are considerable differences in the age groups.

Internet “users” by age

The red section of columns indicates the increase over September-October 1999

As other studies have shown, the number of young people is increasing. But 66 percent of users are still between ages 25 and 54. There are still very few old people online, but according to this survey the number of net users “over 64” has increased 92 percent in six months.

The next graph shows a breakdown by occupation. (The definitions may need an explanation; “employees” are “white collar” workers, while “factory workers“ include people who don’t work in large factories but are “blue collar“ employees. “Artisans” include a variety of self-employed people, including plumbers and mechanics; “retired” are people receiving a pension, though some of them are still active in professional or social roles.)

Internet “users” by occupation
(percentages of “all users”)

Also in this graph the red section of columns indicates
the increase over September-October 1999

Here again we see a reduction of differences, with a growing presence of “medium” occupation levels and students. But three categories (employees-teachers, managers-entrepreneurs-professionals and students) are still 70 percent of all “users”. The “weaker” categories are those with the fastest growth: “blue collar” workers up 80 percent, “retired” people 70 percent, “housewives” 160 percent.

However there are still very large differences in the penetration of total population, as we can see in the next graph.

Internet “users” by occupation
(percentages of population)

As in the other two graphs the red section of columns indicates
the increase over September-October 1999

The most “upscale” category (managers, entrepreneurs, professionals), that had the highest penetration., has been overtaken by students. Office employees and teachers are coming online much faster than in the past. Penetration is still very low with retired people and housewives, but there is a sharp increase in the growth percentages.

Penetration indexes in this survey are probably overstated; but the proportion of categories (by area, age, gender and occupation) is likely to be relevant.

This survey also covered online buying. The total number of people saying that they bough something online is grossly exaggerated, compared to the results of other surveys, but there is an interesting analysis of behavior in relation to how long they have been online.

People buying online

The difference between “before 1995” and “in 1995” is not statistically relevant. This analysis confirms what was found also by other surveys: people buying online are predominantly those with more experience. The numbers are small; only 15 percent of current “users” were online before 1997. But the people with longer experience aren’t only more affluent, better educated and more demanding. They are also “opinion leaders” that often influence the behavior of newcomers.

The seems to be no relevant change in the type of goods and services that people buy online.

Goods and services bought online

“Traditional” categories, such as books, music, hardware and software, are 70 percent of the total. Travel and tourism are below their potential, and so are several other categories. Online commerce in Italy is still in its infancy.


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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 4. Jargon can be fun, but...

I must admit that I enjoy some forms of jargon. Particularly a lot of the net’s traditional playing with words and acronyms, which is often witty and amusing. But I am not so happy with some of the current gobbledygook, which isn’t funny at all and can get in the way of understanding what we are talking about. We are cluttered with B2B, B2C, C2B, C2C and countless other such formulas. And it gets even worse when some English jargon is transplanted into other languages by people who don’t understand what it meant in the first place.

A peculiarity in Italian is that we use “foreign“ words more often than other languages do. A computer is called “ordinateur” in French, “ordenador” in Spanish, “computer” in Italian. In Italy a mouse (the one we use with a computer) is a “mouse” – which is quite convenient, so we don’t confuse it with a rat (in France it’s a “souris”, in Spain a “ratón”). There’s nothing wrong with that; as long as we understand what those words mean. But with the ever-multiplying, and sometimes obscure, terminology (and many pseudo-English words used in ways that have nothing to do with their original meaning) we are getting more and more confused.

When jargon gets out of hand, meaning can get lost. Over the ages, cryptic language has been used to impress the non-initiated and, quite often, to hide ignorance or confused thinking. It’s unfortunately true that all sorts of people (including the managers of large companies) can be impressed by the use of “fashionable” words that they don’t understand; and the reason why they don’t understand them is that quite often they don’t mean anything.

We must bring jargon under control. New words may be needed to define new things, but if we can’t explain them in plain language there is something terribly wrong with our thinking. And that is very often the case with new technologies. Even a simple concept such as “new economy” has been twisted to mean so many different things that a lot of what we read or hear on the subject is either distorting or totally meaningless.


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loghino.gif (1071 byte) 4. Wap woes and wireless potential

So the wap (wireless application protocol) isn’t a success. It’s reported that it doesn’t work well, it’s too expensive and people just aren’t interested in buying it. It that “big news”? I don’t think so. Just one more something that was supposed to be a “killer application” and is going down the drain. There will be some other “wonderful” contraption, that nobody really needs, to take it’s place tomorrow.

I live in a country that it still struggling to reach a reasonable level of efficiency in information technology and in the use of the internet, but has more cellular phones than almost any other place in the world. So the big telephone companies and internet providers have come up with what looks like a simple solution: let’s give them devices that can access the net from a cellular phone (including waps). But it’s not as simple as that.

It’s quite obvious that a miniature screen, a tiny keyboard, a small hand-held device are far less practical than a computer. And mobile connections are expensive. There is nothing new in using mobile connections to access the net; we were doing so (in “emergency” situations where we had no access to a ground line) five or six years ago. So why is there now such a big craze about cellular phones and the net? The reason is simple: telephone companies (and internet providers sharing in the charges) make more money that way. But it’s not convenient for users, and sooner or later people find out.

What’s the long-term perspective? I don’t know (does anyone?) which devices and technologies will prevail. But we seem to be heading for a situation in which the separation will disappear: wireless and wire connections will be parts of one, integrated system. We shall all have one phone number, regardless of which device we are using and where (or maybe more than one, if we want to keep office apart from home or otherwise have separate connections for different roles). Just as we can have the same mailbox (or more than one) no matter from where we are connecting to the internet. We shall be free to choose if we want keyboards or writing pads, large or small monitors, voice-operated systems, videophones, dictaphones, pictograms, touch screens, remote controls, eyeball pointers – or whatever. Voice telephones and data transmission will be one, seamless network. It seems very logical that we should be moving in that direction. Though we don’t know how and when. But there is one key factor. There will have to be one price for local or long distance, ground-based or wireless. And it will have to be much lower than any price we are paying now. The real stumbling block is that some very big and powerful companies are making an enormous amount of money in the current confusopoly; and they will do all they can to stand in the way of a simple standard that would get rid of many unnecessary complications and useless gadgets.


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