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If this is the information economy, where's the information?

The Smiths wrote a song back in the ’80s with the refrain, “Please, please, please let me get what I want.” Nice, if you like the mandolin.

I often feel that way when I surf the Web. When online, I’m typically looking for information. So, for the most part, is every other online consumer.

The top five online activities, according to the Boston Consulting Group, are: communication, research, entertainment, finance, and shopping. Four of these five activities are information related. Communication is an exchange of information; research is the search for information; online finance deals with company research, stock quotes, and so forth; and much online shopping activity involves product information (price, availability, features). A study by J.D. Power & Associates found that 62 percent of all new car buyers research their purchases online. These buyers are unquestionably “shopping.” Shopping includes the quest for information (haven’t you ever read a label in the supermarket?).

So why is it so darn frustrating to find information? Why can’t Web consumers get what they want? We’re dying of thirst in a sea of information.

Site designers and owners know too much — about their sites and their own products. Many are so well informed, they feel everything is adequately explained to others with a carefully chosen tag line and a smattering of pretty graphics. Much of the information a person ignorant of their product needs is simply not there: what the product is, does, costs, and so on. Often, I’ll visit a site and scour the home page trying to glean an idea of what the site is selling.

In a worst-case scenario, here’s what’s on an information-poor site: a tag line, a big graphic, unclear navigation buttons, and perhaps some animation. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a short paragraph explaining the company is the “leading provider of something or other,” which usually obscures the issue. If you’re particularly unlucky, you’re treated to a five-minute Flash intro consisting chiefly of fancy words (“creative,” “leading,” “wireless,” “solutions”) flying across the screen.

Often I have no idea what the company is selling or why I would want to buy it after visiting the site. Many pages tantalize but, in the end, leave a visitor yearning for information. “About Us” often repeats the “leading whatever” pitch, with perhaps a quote from some VP informing me that the company is “disintermediating” something. “Press” links to press releases and articles that invariably rehash the same uninformative company sound bite. “Jobs,” “Contact Us,” and “Partners” don’t help, either. Occasionally, the “Order” or “Registration/Join” page contains some information, although usually not in much detail. Since an average first-time Web visit lasts fewer than five pages, it’s likely the visitor has already moved on — to a site that lets her know what she’s viewing.

In a Jupiter Media Metrix study, 59 percent of consumers said “more product information” would induce them to visit retail sites more often. Site owners, meanwhile, peruse their traffic data and wonder why so many visit yet so few buy.

Connecting With the Consumer will return on Tuesday, January 8th. Happy holidays from ClickZ!

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