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7th July 1997
Doing Mars on $10 a day
The Web has been alive with news and pictures from the Mars probe which landed on the surface of the Red planet just a couple of days ago.

I can gloat a little and claim that 7am News was the first news site to carry the initial lander pictures and also first to post the pictures of the Rover on martian soil, including a small animated GIF of its deployment (all this stuff is still online at: www.7am.com/mars).

Yes, 7am even beat CNN and NASA's own JPL to get those early pictures up on the Web. As a result, 7am's US site received tens of thousands of extra visitors over the weekend period - more on that later!

When I visited the JPL site on Friday, I was stunned to read about the technology that drives the Pathfinder and Mars-Rover units.

Hands up those who expected that this would be "state of the art" stuff? Custom designed high-speed, low-power processors?

Nope! The Mars Rover uses a lowly old 80C85 - a processor which dates back to the days before even the first IBM PC and is only a second cousin to the original 8080 that young Billy Gates cut his programming teeth on back in 1975.

The Pathfinder unit itself is driven by an RS6000 CPU that runs at variable speeds up to an amazing 20MHZ. Apart from the fact that these CPUs and other semiconductors have been specially hardened against the effects of radiation, we're talking "off-the-shelf" technology here! Chances are that the computer you're using right now to read this article is many times more powerful than the brains of the Pathfinder system and even your printer probably has more smarts than the Rover unit.

It's pretty sobering to realise just how far commercial computing technology has come in 20 short years isn't it? Let's just be thankful that its running under VMX and not Windows 95 although it's already performed one spontaneous reboot so maybe there is some Word'97 code in there somewhere <grin>. Shame they didn't truly test Sun's "Compile once, run everywhere" claim for Java either!

Finally, as a matter of interest, can you guess what's on the Web at www.jpl.nasa.org before you click on the link? Is this the Jet Propulsion Labs at NASA? Maybe not!

I bet these people got a lot collateral exposure though... maybe all those "near miss" Domain names that ISOCNZ has registered recently might be worth something after all... but that's another story!

Now, about those tens of thousands of extra visitors to 7am...
Yes, the 7am site was even busier than usual over the weekend thanks to the Mars mission, scoring thousands of extra visitors - but why should anyone believe this?

Last week IDG laid claim to getting 2,000 "visits" a day at their @IDG web site and further claim that their traffic is growing by 20% per month - but why should anyone believe them?

NBR regular publish seemingly large numbers relating to the traffic that hits their site - but why should they be believed?

Now that advertisers are starting to plough money into the Web as a medium for delivering commercial messages to prospective customers it's about time these claims were backed up with audits isn't it?

Surprisingly, it appears that Xtra is the only site that has taken the plunge and brought in an independent auditor to verify the traffic figures on their site. I guess that sort of throws down the gauntlet to everyone else who would lay claim to own some valuable ad-space.

NBR and IDG both have their print-media publications audited so why not their Web-sites?

Maybe it's because the audit bureaus don't have their Net-act together? Well AGB certainly seem to have done the job okay at the Xtra site so there are resources available.

Advertisers may be happy to invest small amounts of money on the word of the Web-site operators but some time soon they're going to want to see real, independently audited figures before they lay out the real money.

Prove it!
forget "hits" hype, it's users that count
By what measure?
I know I've written about the folly of "hits" before but I think it's worth reiterating that "hits" as a unit of traffic measurement will have to be relegated to the dustbin - or you'll see competing sites simply doubling the number of graphics on each page to boost their ratings.

Unique user-sessions are the only true measure of a site's popularity, but how do we measure that?.

The much-despised "cookie" can almost do the job, but it really only tells us how many unique browsers have visited. If the same browser is shared by five or six users in an office or home then the figures will be skewed.

We can ask people to register at a site in the way that NBR does but that's generally disincentive - I don't have to show my ID to buy and read a copy of the print version so why should I have to do so for the online one? One must also ask, since NBR use both cookies and registration, why don't they quote unique user-sessions, information they obviously have, instead of the meaningless "hits" measure?

This industry is growing up fast and unfortunately it means we can't continue to operate by the seat of the pants, site operators are going to have to dish out some cold, hard irrefutable facts, audited by independent third parties.

As an industry, we're badly in need of some kind of measurement standards and methods for implementing them in a tamper-proof and easily audited manner.

From those who should know (and can afford) to do better
As regular readers are well aware, I'm always keen to point out the activities of "Web-cowboys". Those self-appointed experts who fraudulently lay claim to the title of "Web Designer".

Well Ford NZ recently launched their Web site onto an unsuspecting public. The graphics are okay, stylised and maybe a little reminiscent of an architect's drawings - but quite acceptable.

So, that's the quality - but oh dear, talk about quantity!

It's not just that there's over 100Kbytes on the front page (yawn!), but they've also used animated GIFs to get a pseudo-video effect. Great! Except it takes 380K of data to fill a postage-stamped size image - bummer!

Then there's the absolutely awful animated GIF of an aeroplane trailing a Ford banner on the front page - sigh!

And... if your ISP charges by volume, take care - this site is hosted in the USA so the fancy little animated GIF pseudo videos may end up costing you as much as a dollar each to watch during prime-time.

And... guess what? Like all "bad" sites - they expect you to hang up your modem and ring them for more information. Hasn't anyone told Ford that the Internet is a two-way medium?

Actually there is an email address hidden away on this amazing page which also effectively says "take no notice of this Web site because everything you see here could be wrong".

Now let's not rush out and blame the Web designers in this instance, they may not have been given much latitude but I think if I were forced to attach my name to a site that ignores the basic rules like this I'd probably tell the client (regardless of their size) to go and inflict their mandates on someone else.

Come on Ford, get your act together... why spend good money on a Web site only to screw it up by ignoring the limitations and true potential of the technology? It would appear that you've employed the services of a media designers who don't have a clue about the Net. There are simply too many signs that these pages have been designed by those who are more familiar with print and broadcast than the Web.

Mind you, when it comes to poor site design decisions, Ford NZ are in good company with many of the other Ford sites around the world which share a common format and graphics to even worse effect.

Don't ford know that NZ is the home of one of the World's most highly respected Auto-Web designers? Love him or hate him (people seem to be a little polarised in this regard), it has to be admitted that when it comes to developing Car related Web sites, Dave Blyth is truly an expert at his art.

And to show that you don't even have to use Dave Blyth to build a damned fine car-site, just compare Ford's offering with the brilliant light and airy Honda USA site. Big graphics which are small on K-bytes and look great! Check out their dealer locator section which even gives you street maps AND an email form for contact.

Car sites on the Web. The good, the bad and the ugly

I Can't Believe It's True!
We've all seen sites that simply have "too much" on one page. Some of the worst often have four or five link-exchange type banners, a handful of animated GIFs and globs of graphics.

Here's a refreshing change - NOT! and I can even use the same link-phrase as last week!

Quantity has a quality all it's own

If you use an ISP that charges by volume, be warned, this is a US-based site and it will take "a while" to load :-)

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