The Digital Darwin Awards

Let’s pose an existential question for a moment. If a business is online, and there’s no one qualified within earshot to call its bluff, does it have a clue? Given the nascent state of Internet business, statistics currently favor the safe answer of “no.”

The industry is rife with half-baked business models, barely out of the idea stage and looking for a quick sale with exit strategies in hand. These companies are frequently led by entrepreneurs who feel entitled to the same ridiculous valuations of their predecessors, but without (heaven forbid!) having to actually prove their ideas in the real world.

Established offline businesses aren’t helping the odds either. Many have attempted to cash out by spinning off online arms as separate, ridiculously valued businesses. Others have abandoned their online efforts entirely at the first sign of competition, or if they don’t see ROI within a year.

50,000,000 Amazon Fans Can’t Be Wrong

Revisiting our existential question, now let’s say the online business received significant coverage in the industry trades … and traded handsomely on Wall Street, thank you very much. Doesn’t this implicitly validate it?

Unfortunately, the industry isn’t yet mature enough for us to safely assume these businesses really have a clue, either. In the course of our “day jobs,” we’ve encountered numerous, supposedly web-savvy businesses that demonstrated complete lapses in web-centric thinking and a lack of web skills at the most fundamental levels.

Internet analysts and the talkaloti often speak of “Digital Darwinism” — or how a process of natural selection is underway in the industry. Therefore, in the spirit of the annual Darwin Awards, we propose the Digital Darwin Awards.

To enlighten the uninitiated:

“The Darwin Awards commemorate (the remains of) individuals who eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby dousing our gene pool with chlorine.”

— source:

Previous Darwin Award winners (circulated heavily through inter-office email) included a speed-seeking former Air Force sergeant, who propelled his 1967 Chevy Impala into an Arizona canyon wall at speeds of up to 300mph with the aid of an appropriated solid-fuel rocket.

Fortunately the Digital Darwin Awards do not require death or serious injury for qualification. However, the awards require distinguished demonstration of web ineptitude or a complete disregard for conventional web wisdom.

To help identify selection criteria for the awards, what follows are several real-life examples with the names omitted to protect the clueless.

While You Were Out At the Information Revolution

A non-profit association of over 300 online media companies (including the likes of AOL, Disney, and Yahoo) publishes email newsletters of member announcements, press releases, and industry news that are read by over 30,000 senior new media executives.

However, when it comes to the contact information that follows each news bite, all too often you will find something akin to, “For more information, please call Tara Dactyl at (212) 555-1559 x308.”

Sorry, no web addresses, no email addresses, nor CODs.

From the Department of Covert Publicity

Seeking heavy online exposure, a major U.S. music retailer cut a deal to surface e-commerce links on a popular portal. A select number of the retailer’s most popular titles would be targeted to users who entered highly relevant search keywords.

Unfortunately, this otherwise clever strategy ran aground during implementation. When the portal asked the retailer to set up a data file that could be “harvested” regularly from a password-protected, public web server for updates, the retailer panicked. The retailer feared that its title and pricing information “fall into the wrong hands.”

Apparently the lesson here for the security-conscious is to publish your sensitive data on a search engine with millions of daily users. A similar tactic by U.S. research labs could have held back China’s strategic nuclear weapon capabilities by at least 10 years.

A Tale of Two Full-Service Interactive Agencies

Then there are the worldwide interactive agencies that specialize in online marketing solutions for Fortune 500 businesses.

A major U.S. catalog retailer contracted the Silicon Alley office of one such agency to create targeted online content for them. Major portals would regularly harvest this content and present it on their own pages as featured advertisements.

However, insufficient disk space forced the agency to scrap this plan. The agency’s public web space consisted of only a small business account from a local ISP.

Compounding matters further, the agency’s content consisted of HTML snippets laden with fat images. The HTML references to these images also pointed to their own and not the portals’ web account, meaning that the fat images would have to reside with and be delivered from their own marginal web service. This was from an agency that recently announced a key partnership with one of the world’s largest automobile manufacturers to develop one-to-one online marketing initiatives in Europe.

A different “world’s largest automobile manufacturer” contracted another world-renowned, award-winning online advertising agency — this one working out of its L.A. (the Silicon Implant?) office — to regularly rotate sets of portal-harvested content they created for the manufacturer.

After purchasing their first ever public web server to pull it off, the agency required one of the portal’s engineers to hand-hold them through the creation and installation of a 10-line, content-rotating Perl script; a script that can be found in several basic web design (not even programming) books.

Everything Is Image

One of the web’s leading image databases, backed by Bill Gates, pursued a high-profile portal partnership. Now if there were two core competencies you would identify with such a company, it would be images and the web.

Yet when Greg performed technical due diligence on the company, he discovered serious problems with their page loading speeds. He counted 103 images on their home page alone. (By comparison, even CNN uses only a fraction of that.) This doesn’t sound unreasonable if you’re in the image database business, but many of them were simple navigation and formatting aids that could have been eliminated or replaced with good HTML text.

Not only do images take much longer to download than text, but most browsers (including Gates’ Internet Explorer) are configured to iteratively fetch no more than a few of them at a time — resulting in extended waits for all the images to fill a single page. Furthermore, the site’s HTML code referenced the same images under several different names, defeating the ability of the viewer’s browser to locally cache them and speed up page loading.

However, the deal wasn’t killed until their site returned server errors for 28 hours of a 48-hour performance test. The site’s managers explained that their servers were actually up all that time, and that it was merely an internal caching problem that caused their servers to return errors.

Yeah, explain that one to the online trader who couldn’t sell his shares while the market plummeted that day.

Submit Your Ballots!

Now that you get the idea, we are accepting submissions for this year’s Digital Darwin Awardees until December 31. After putting the submissions to a vote next January, we’ll report on the winners and what made them such outstanding examples.

So please email your submissions to, and give credit where credit is truly due.

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