It's been a while since I checked in on so-called browser helpers -- or "bots" -- which, at one time, showed such promise. This is a category that last year at this time I really thought would take off. It could have been that I was breathing my own exhaust since I was developing a few of these apps myself at the time, but bots just have not taken hold of the public imagination the way I predicted they would.
These tools include products from such companies as flyswat, Atomica (formerly GuruNet), dash, and Third Voice 2.0, as well as myriad shopping bots that were supposed to take over the world. For a while there, it seemed like everyone and his uncle was developing some sort of desktop helper or client-side software tool to pick up the slack when search engines and e-commerce sites stumbled. So what happened?
Well, these tools haven't gone away, at least as far as I can tell, but maybe their usefulness has. I tried to get in touch with some of the companies behind them, but obtained largely discouraging results. A call to Third Voice just resulted in the phone ringing off the hook, and flyswat's phone was busy the entire time I tried calling. At least someone at Atomica answered the phone. I was told that Atomica's PR firm would contact me, but that never happened.
You can divide bots into two basic groups: those that help you search and those that help you shop. The first group interacts with your browser to deepen the information found on the web page (or, in the case of Atomica, the information found in the Word document) you are looking at.
See a mention of a company that you are interested in on some web site somewhere? Just click on the word and up pops all sorts of information: current stock price, SEC findings, you name it -- a world of information at the click of a mouse!
All this information comes not from the web site itself but from a third-party bot that aggregates the information for you and presents the information in its own interface, "contextual search" being the mantra of these companies. If you're into research, it sounds like a winner, right?
The other type of bots tell you about bargains to be found elsewhere just as you are narrowing in on some e-commerce deal. Want to buy that new book by Stephen King on Amazon.com? Just before you finalize the sale, up pops the bot to tell you the same book is available at Barnes & Noble a buck cheaper.
Both of these types of products make money by being the intermediary, either by taking a cut of the revenue or by working on the basis of a cost-per-click (CPC) deal. And, perhaps, like the dinosaur, they made more sense when the world was a different kind of place.
First of all, online bargains aren't as easy to find anymore, and with e-commerce sites imploding all around, many of the partnerships and contracts that these companies undertook might not be worth the paper they're written on. Another problem is that search engines themselves have gotten much better at what they do. Engines like Google and Ask Jeeves do a better job at getting you to the right information than search engines did in the past.
Right now, what's really hurting these bot companies is that few sites can afford to pay for the traffic that these CPC deals are supposed to generate. But more fundamentally, the big reason these products haven't taken off is that it hasn't been demonstrated that people, on a mass scale, actually want to use them. If people don't click, you can't get any per-click revenue. It's extremely difficult to get people to change their behavior, and none of these products seems to have been intriguing enough to get people over that hump. Whether one will break out in the future remains to be seen.
My personal problem with bots, though, is that if you are like me, memory management on your computer has become a real problem. The system tray on my PC has enough icons on it to stretch along the Great Wall of China. I can see them on the bottom of my screen, each one just hanging out on my desktop, taking up RAM, and laughing at me every time my system crashes when I try to launch ACT! at the same time that Photoshop is running. And I have 256 megs of RAM!
So I am looking for one desktop app that will allow me to get rid of all the other desktop apps. Now that is a bot I can get behind!
Until next week, keep it rich!
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Bill McCloskey is the founder and chief evangelist for Email Data Source, a competitive intelligence resource for e-mail marketers. He was named one of online advertising's 50 most influential people by "Media" magazine and one of the 100 people to know by "BtoB Magazine." He's been a recognized pioneer in interactive advertising for over 10 years.