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  • LESLIE WALKER
    Leslie Walker

    Columnist Leslie Walker hosts Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine and author of "New Rules for the New Economy," from 1 to 2 p.m. Submit questions.

    All-Knowing Amazon

    By Leslie Walker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 14, 1999; Page E1

    Welcome back, gentle reader.

    (If you're not a gentle reader, click here .)

    I don't know about you, but I'm tired of seeing "Welcome back, Leslie Walker" on the Amazon.com home page every time I shop for books. It shows that the computers of Big Brother Bezos (that would be Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, whose personal stake in the online bookseller is now worth more than $10 billion) are watching my reading habits and presenting me with titles they think I'll like.

    You may be wondering why I keep going back. I guess I thought Amazon was simply the best. Recently, though, I decided to give Barnes & Noble's Web store another look, after a few of my wired friends said they had shopped there but didn't find it . . . well, webby enough.

    Not webby enough? So I paid a visit and made a purchase, and the next time I went there I was shaken down to my snobby Internet roots: Welcome, Leslie, it greeted me, just like Amazon. If you're not Leslie, click here.

    Feature for feature, service for service, discount for discount, annoyance for annoyance, Barnes and noble.com has become a close match for Internet pioneer Amazon.com. In recent months, the nation's largest bookseller has added significant amounts of editorial material, new titles, one-click "express line" purchasing and a speedy way to buy out-of-print books. Its shipping fees are identical to Amazon, and, yes, its computers make personal recommendations.

    Barnesandnoble.com still lags in site performance I got two "server too busy" messages and fewer readers seem to type in reviews than at Amazon. But I found the Barnesandnoble.com experience stronger in other areas, such as browsing by topic and finding rare books.

    All in all, my new-found respect for Barnes & Noble underlines how much faster commercial enterprises can evolve on the Web than in the real world. And the change help newcomers build momentum.

    Amazon.com went online two years ahead of Barnes & Noble so how far ahead is it in attracting visitors? Between September and November, Amazon's audience increased by less than 40 percent, while Barnesandnoble.com's more than doubled. Amazon had nearly 8 million visitors in November to B&N's nearly 4 million, according to Media Metrix, the Web's leading traffic-measurement firm.

    Amazon has a much larger sales lead because more of Amazon's visitors are buying, a fact born out by the higher number of pages viewed by each visitor. But Barnes & Noble is hoping its low buy ratio is related to how long its shoppers, generally less Net-savvy than Amazon's, have been on the Web. Research shows online surfers like to browse for six months or longer before buying.

    You may be wondering: Does Borders, the other big national bookselling chain, even have a Web site? It does, but it's an infant, less than a year old. By Media Metrix's count, its traffic stayed almost flat at 300,000 people in November, although its executives say their traffic logs show bigger numbers than than.

    If Barnes & Noble has jazzed up its online store, why is Amazon still getting all the buzz? Could it be reverse snobbery that heavy Internet users have adopted Amazon as one of their own and look down on Barnes & Noble and other real-world retailers as foreigners who don't "get" cyberspace?

    Well, they do. Barnesandnoble.com started life with bright-green pages to match its traditional store colors, but it recently adopted Amazon's muted green, which bespeaks the Net's utilitarian culture. After three big redesigns, Barnes & Noble's retains clever features traceable to its creation in May 1997 by the Web's most famous designer, Roger Black.

    While both search engines respond well to imprecise queries, Barnes & Noble's goes deeper. When you search for a title it doesn't stock, Amazon proudly brings up a page saying it will "query our network of used bookstores for you and send an update within one to two weeks."

    That has been bested, in my opinion, by Barnes & Noble, which does a simultaneous search of used-book dealers and allows you to buy used books on the spot. For example, it instantly found original "Noddy" books that I loved in my childhood, including "Noddy and His Magic Rubber" for $37.50 from a store in London. Not bad.

    So can Barnes & Noble catch up to Amazon, which, among other advantages, has a network of more than 140,000 online affiliates Web sites that collect commissions for each book buyer they refer? Barnes & Noble has just 50,000.

    Executives at both Borders and Barnes & Noble say they are gaining ground. Borders is planning heavy cross-promotion with its physical stores, although sales-tax rules put limits on that by imposing a tax on Web sales if the real-world stores do too much promotion.

    Barnes & Nobles made a bold move by announcing it will buy the nation's largest book distributor, Ingram Book Group, which would allow it to knock a day off many book deliveries. Barnes & Noble officials also say they are going to marry their bookselling expertise to technology and go much deeper this year into the technology championed by Big Brother Bezos: personalization.

    Goodbye, gentle reader. If you like this column, may we suggest "Bridget Jones's Diary." It's irrelevant to the Internet, but funny novels may be our best response to a world increasingly run by machines.

    Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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