While commercial applications of the Internet proliferate, particularly in the form of business sites on the World Wide Web, on-line business is still relatively insignificant. One reason is that truly compelling applications have yet to be devised to penetrate the mass market. To help identify approaches that may eventually be successful, one must address the question of what value is being created on the Web. As a first step, this paper proposes a framework to evaluate Web sites from a customer's perspective of value-added. A global study covering 1,800 sites, with representative samples from diverse industries and localities worldwide, is conducted to give a profile of commercial use of the World Wide Web in 1996.
By mid-1996, there were over 250,000 World Wide Web (WWW or Web in short) sites on the Internet, up from 15,000 in 1994 [e-land, 1997a]. Business enterprises–from multinational conglomerates to solo entrepreneurs–are staking their presence on the Internet, all poised to become pioneers in what promises to be the frontier of electronic commerce [Kalakota and Whinston, 1996]. Yet, in spite of estimates ranging from 14.1 million WWW users 16 years of age or older in the US alone [Hoffman, Kalsbeek, and Novak, 1996] to 37.4 million in the US and Canada [CommerceNet, 1997], on-line business is still relatively insignificant. Net merchants were estimated to sell some $750 million worth of goods by the end of 1996, compared to $1.7 trillion for the retail industry and $57 billion for the home shopping industry [e-land, 1997b]. Apart from the obvious difficulties with bandwidth and security [Alpar, 1996], technical issues that can no doubt be resolved eventually, there is the more probing question of what value is being created by information technology in general [Ho, 1994], and on the Web in particular. Certainly, one cannot expect real progress if it is simply the digital replacement of conventional channels such as newspaper ads, TV commercials, phones, and fax [Ho, 1996a].
Since Web-based business models are still in the nascent stage, there are no obvious criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of commercial Web sites. Indeed, the earliest attempts are in the purely subjective form of individual preferences, which are themselves recorded as pages of “Cool Links,”“Top Lists,” and “Hot Sites” (e.g. [USA Today, 1996, June 11].) More organized efforts have since appeared as Web reviews [The Web Magazine, 1997] or popularity polls [IntelliQuest Technology Panel, 1997]. Academic studies are still scarce, with the few examples covering either generic functions of commercial sites [Hoffman, Novak, and Chatterjee, 1995], or applications in specific industries (e.g. hotels ,[Murphy, Forrest, Wotring, and Brymer, 1996] and art galleries [Smith and McLaughlin, 1996]).
This paper proposes a general framework to evaluate Web sites from a customer's perspective of value added. A global study of commercial sites, conducted in May through September, provides a snapshot of the development of this new medium for business in 1996. First, representative samples in North America (US and Canada) from 40 industries, totaling 1000 sites, are evaluated. The results are presented and discussed by industry. Next, 8 other localities worldwide are considered: Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Singapore, Taiwan, and United Kingdom. A sample of 100 sites from 20 industries is studied for each locality. Comparative results are presented in three groupings. Interpretation of the aggregate sample is then given, concluding with implications and suggestions of future directions of this approach to evaluation.