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CNET's Computer Review Web Site Helps Buyers Navigate Sea of Resellers

Bewildered by the vast array of computer products competing for attention on the Web, consumers are relying on the one-stop shopping site Computers.com to aid them in product selection.

CNET, San Francisco, a media firm that covers the computer industry, developed the site to allow consumers to compare and evaluate products and to link buyers directly to resellers.

Consumers cannot purchase items on Computers.com, but they are offered a wealth of research targeted to their needs. According to a study by publisher Cahners Business Information, Newton, MA, the primary reason people turn to the Internet for business material is to obtain product data and evaluations.

“What people care about is up-to-date information on buying computer products, because models, specifications and prices change every single day,” said Ellen Atkinson, CNET's executive vice president of marketing. “They also want the data to be totally comprehensive. They want to make sure that everything is available to them in one place, and they want to be able to link and move around.”

Portions of Computers.com debuted in November. The site became fully functional in December, during which time it was used by more than twice as many people as used its closest competitor, Ziff-Davis' Netbuyer (www.netbuyer.com), according to Media Metrix, New York, which provides statistics on Web use.

Although Atkinson admits that measuring Web site traffic is a new and inexact science, she is excited that the study places her site in the same league as Ziff-Davis' computer shopping guide, which has been in existence for more than a year.

However, this early success, coupled with the growing need for a comprehensive source of computer information, has Scott Arpajian, site manager for Computers.com, looking over his shoulder.

“I think it's safe to say that we haven't seen all the competitors that will emerge,” he said.

To promote Computers.com, CNET advertised on its network of computer-related sites, which claim 6.5 million users, and its television programs, which reach 8 million viewers on USA Network, Sci-Fi Channel and in national syndication.

Since most of the traffic stemmed from those promotions, Atkinson thinks the basic profile of Computers.com visitors is the same as that of the consumers who watch CNET programming and frequent other CNET sites — home and business consumers with buying responsibility. To supplement this profile, Computers.com will embark on a random sampling study in the next month.

Every 200th visitor to the site will be asked to complete a 15-question survey, which includes requests for demographic and buying responsibility information — and a chance to enter a sweepstakes for a PalmPilot, a computerized personal organizer.

“One of the things about the Internet is that you can annoy people if you force them to fill out surveys, so we have stayed away from that,” Atkinson said.

Computers.com will present the survey to 1,000 visitors and is aiming for a 50 percent response rate. Those who are asked to fill out the survey will be tracked using cookie technology so they won't be asked again.

Computers.com is free to consumers who use the site and to the 13 resellers — including MicroWarehouse, CompUSA, Insight and Computer Discount Warehouse — that have direct links on the site. Revenues are received from the sites' 40 advertisers, including Compaq, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Toshiba.

The site's product directory is divided into more than 10 categories, including desktops, servers, notebooks, modems, printers, memory and digital cameras. Each category is further divided into subcategories, such as PCs, Macintoshes and Web under desktops and multimedia, and 15-inch and 19-inch under monitors.

The subcategories contain a list of products and prices, when the entry was last updated and whether CNET has reviewed the product. Users can click on a product to look at its fact sheet, specifications and support policy for more details.

Product reviews are written by an editorial staff; also noted are links to relevant reviews and articles from other computer-oriented publications.

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