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Personalizing Your Site Offerings

  |  September 15, 2000   |  Comments

Have you ever thought, "Gee, wouldn't it be cool if when someone is looking at any product in my online store, I could offer a list of related products"? In fact, such personalization is not hard to achieve with use of a flat-file database that you edit and retrieve information from in PERL. "But wait!" you say. "I don't understand PERL, much less how to write PERL code!" Richard's got a solution to this quandary - and it won't break your budget.

(Richard Hoy pinch-hits for regular contributor Andy Bourland this week. Andy's column resumes next week.)

Have you ever thought, "Gee, wouldn't it be cool if when someone is looking at any product in my online store, I could offer a list of related products"?

Check this out:

http://www.booklocker.com/bookpages/christinetoomey01.html

At the top left of the page, there is a button that says, "Find other e-books like this one." I added this feature to my site for about $45 and a half-hour of elbow grease. And you can, too, through the miracle of flat-file databasing.

A database, as you probably are well aware, is a collection of records where each record has the same fields. A flat-file database is one where each record, and all the data points contained in that record, are written on a single line and are differentiated with some sort of common ASCII character (usually the "|" character, which is known as a "pipe"), like so:

record 1
|
field 1
|
field 2
|
field 3
record 2
|
field 1
|
field 2
|
field 3
record 3
|
field 1
|
field 2
|
field 3
record 4
|
field 1
|
field 2
|
field 3

The beauty of this format is that you can use PERL to edit the content of your flat-file database as well as retrieve information from it.

"But wait!" you say. "I don't understand PERL, much less how to write PERL code to do this fancy manipulation!"

Neither do I. I created my own script using one of the hidden gems of the online world - a site called Flattext.com.

This has to be one of the coolest sites I've ever run across, not only because of how useful it is for PERL-challenged folks like myself, but also because it is a brilliant business model. This site guides you though a series of forms that in the end generate a flat-file database in PERL and the tools to administer it. What this guy did was basically take his knowledge of UNIX and PERL, and package it into a service that anyone can use to build flat-file databases.

And he did it in a way that is totally automated. So he's got zilch overhead for building a custom solution for each customer. The model is so brilliant, in my opinion, because while building such things is probably a trivial job for him and for other programmers, I and many others couldn't do it as quickly or cleanly even if we had many months to learn PERL. In fact, you probably couldn't even buy a good PERL book for what this guy charges.

Depending on the features you want your database to have, Flattext charges between $35 and $75 for the finished script. If you pay $135, you can get "all you can eat" access to the site.

But back to what we were trying to do in the first place: create a flat-file database out of which we could get related products. So the first thing you need to do is categorize your products. Using my original example, I classified all books related to the afterlife with the following data: New Age, Spirituality and Philosophy:Afterlife.

And I put that data in a field called "category."

Then it's just a matter of constructing a link containing a URL that, when someone clicks on it, tells the flat-file database: "I want all the records that have New Age, Spirituality and Philosophy:Afterlife in the field called 'category.'" And you do that by tacking on ?category=New+Age,+Spirituality+and+Philosophy:Afterlife to the end of the URL where the final script you create with Flattext resides.

What you're doing is passing that information through the URL to the script so it knows what records to show you. And an important note is that you must put the + where the spaces would be if you have data that contains spaces, like mine does.

Well, that's the end of our time together today.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Hoy

After five years of telling others about how to spend their marketing budget online, Richard Hoy recently left the employ of this influential publication to see if what he's been blabbing with his big fat mouth all these years really works. He is President and Co-founder of Booklocker.com Inc., an alternative to traditional publishing that helps authors realize profits of up to 70 percent of sales by combining electronic publishing with Internet marketing.

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