Walter Gross is Chief Executive Officer of The Technomax Group, an on-line company focused on helping small business owners integrate their corporate identity with the Internet and the World Wide Web. But you may know Wally better as the creator and guardian of the prestigious and world-renowned Surfers Choice Internet Awards, a long-standing and top-rated bastion of the search for web excellence. From his offices in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada Wally oversees a number of successful internet properties including Technomax. If you don't mind hearing from a 53 year old guy that still leaves warm milk and oatmeal cookies for Santa, please stick around. This interview was conducted in early March 2000.
This is your friendly interviewer, Jeff Clark, as he appeared in 1999. Time changes things.
[Internet Brothers] You recently had to make an agonizing switch from a free award service to a fee-based review to help stem the tide of applications. How has that worked out?
[Wally Gross] Actually the switch wasn't all that recent; May 1999 to be exact. I did test runs for about a year prior to that with a nominal fee of $15 and found that about 65% of submissions were those that deserved the award. There's no fee for sites that don't meet the requirements. Submissions were way down but the quality was way up. That I liked, and I think any webmaster that has run an awards site would feel good about this result.
As far as agonizing goes, I'll say that it was not at all agonizing (more on that later) and has turned out to be a smart decision. Maybe one of the best I have ever made. First, it has nearly eliminated spammed submissions and unqualified applications, not to mention the fact that more time is available to provide a good service to our member sites.
Next, I would have never charged a fee if I didn't truly believe that what we do is a bargain at the price we ask. Free is a concept I have mixed emotions about. Whilst I give and have given thousands of free hours to the Web Community, there comes a point where giving away the most precious of all commodities, our time, becomes a problem of huge proportions. It may have been free to those thousands of sites that used our service for the first three years, but it became a ball and chain for me.
I would say that Surfers Choice Internet Awards would have been closed down by now had I not taken this action. Furthermore, while it is true that most site owners would not lay out a dime to receive an award, it's also true that those who see and appreciate the value in what another does are happy to pay for the service. There is no shortage of award sites that will provide free award reviews. My hat goes off to them — they are top-notch people.
Having said that, it is also very true that the number of award sites that do charge a fee is growing (in fact some portals now have fee services). This does not mean that the award is more credible or meaningful. I do believe that some award sites, Surfers Choice being one, have shifted their paradigm to provide presence services to the awarded sites.
I study my log files at least two to three times weekly and can reveal, what I think, is a very telling statistic to you. Prior to May 1999 our average site visitors was in the area of 130 a day. Of those, 90 made submissions for the award. The average page views per visitor was three — I would imagine our two application pages and our start page. The average visit time was about 87 seconds, just enough time to take a quick token glance at the standards page and submit the application. So why bother anyway? What was getting our award doing for anybody?
Now study these stats:
From 11/1999 through 02/2000
Time at site: 11 minutes 12 secs
Average Unique Visits Per Day: 187
Page Views Per Visitor: 14
Average Award Submissions Per Day: 1.7
“Truthfully, I don't see much difference on an individual basis between the vast majority of Canadians or Americans. I think our roots are very similar; the real difference is in sheer numbers.” — Wally Gross
These figures have also increased about 4.5% a month since last November and are about 20% higher for the month of February 2000. Add to this the presence we get via our portal site, our other sites, and our e-mail newsletter and I think having a fee based award service is doing exactly what I wanted for our awarded sites, and for us. The nice thing is that we can continue to make it better as time goes by.
So, for those sites that don't want an award that is fee based, there are many choices all over the Net. For those that don't mind letting go of a few bucks, there are sites like Surfers Choice. We can't please everybody, but how important is that? You could give away millions (see http://www.iwon.com) and still not please 'em all. I'm happy with the level of loyalty we have managed to develop with our site users, and our members. I am elated about the great improvement in presence for our sites and look forward to huge improvements in this area in the months ahead.
Now back to agonizing. Recently I had to remove our free service targeted at charity, non-profit and other high quality non-commercial resources. Once again, this is directly due to volumes of spam and non-qualified sites that abused the service. It is unfortunate commercial sites that don't make any money perceive themselves as non-commercial entities, or sites that are clearly extensions of commercial enterprises that just happen to have information posted on the Web, and sell nothing, harbor similar feelings.
This has been most painful for me, as I have great respect for those that provide us with superb resources and do so strictly for the pleasure of it all. Oh, we still provide a free service for these sites, at least the ones we find via other means, but we simply can't accept on-line submissions for those reasons stated above. It's unfortunate, but I have a life other than this and that, and my family comes first. I simply have no time to waste for those that can't follow a simple and reasonable protocol.
[IB] The Canadian population is only about one-tenth that of the United States, yet the number of high-quality, successful internet businesses and web developers in Canada far exceeds that percentage by comparison. Is there something in the beer up there?
[WG] Well OK, maybe I best start bringing home members of the Labatt family on a more regular basis. I have one foot in Canada and one foot in the US. Not because of the Internet; part of my family located in Milwaukee and some of us in Toronto when we migrated here in 1950. In fact my Dad's father married a gal from Harrisburg, PA (maiden name Lehn) way back in 1915. Truthfully, I don't see much difference on an individual basis between the vast majority of Canadians or Americans. I think our roots are very similar; the real difference is in sheer numbers. I am a proud Canadian with many friends in the US and very happy about my geographical location.
As far as it applies to the Web, I believe that Canadians are quick to pick up on anything technical. We have our own silicon valley just a few miles north of me, and many great things are being developed. I also believe that, if we are to be forthright about it, our motivations are often sparked south of the border. E-bay is one such Canadian success story. Another up and coming site will be ThoughtShare Communications out of Vancouver. I think they have a winner in their information search and delivery system. I would even say, although I don't guarantee a thing and they sure aren't paying me, that anyone with a few spare dollars might want to invest in this concept.
The Web is about information and those that grasp this concept and develop delivery methods will be high profile in the not too distant future. Contextual merchandising (the weaving together of words or information marketing) is something I have alluded to often in recent times and I think it's the next niche on the Web. Content is king and that's what will build customer loyalty and return visits to those web sites that grasp and embrace this concept. Just try registering a domain name with the words share, info, content, contextual and similar words and you'll see just how many have their visionary glasses in place and focused.
Canadians embraced the on-line experience in a big way starting in 1997. I recall seeing stats that Canada was the world leader in internet users with some 30% of us on-line. I can't recall where I saw the number or if it is accurate, but it seems to be stuck in my little grey portal. Although we have yet to exhibit our spending habits electronically, we are avid surfers. It's a fact that many credit card services report about 50% of all processed transactions originate in the US. I believe that the Web has done a great deal of good for both of our countries in the social and economic sense. The term netizen is one I like, for it aptly describes a new heritage and a new foundation for the proliferation of good things.
Proceed to part 3 of Internet Brothers interview with Wally Gross.
Return to part 1 of Internet Brothers interview with Wally Gross.