Amid the fuss about interactive this and multimedia that, it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the Net's original and still most powerful function is as a simple medium for disseminating information.
And sometimes, the best way of doing so is to abandon the bells and whistles and opt for something a little more straightforward.
Web sites don't come a lot more straightforward than that of Cambridge estate agent Pocock & Shaw, and the site is none the worse for it. Apart from a simple logo and the discreet use of the company name as background wallpaper, there is nothing to trouble even the most temperamental V.24 modem.
Instead, there is a small selection of pages which include all the information you need to find a home or business property in Cambridge and the surrounding area, including a property search engine which allows the browser to pick properties by type (semi-detached, detached, flat etc) and within minimum and maximum price parameters. We searched for a one-bedroom flat within the #50,000 to #75,000 price range and the engine delivered details of two suitable properties in barely two seconds. And that was that.
The information published at Pocock & Shaw's Web site is no more detailed than the short one- or two-sentence descriptions we're all familiar with from estate agents' mailing lists - and that is disappointing. Some kind of photography of a property's internal and external features, or even a rough plan of the layout, would have been a definite plus. The company should also consider providing links between its site and some local maps so that prospective buyers can have a better idea of where their potential dream home is located.
But it is an admirable starting point for a company which only dipped its toe into Internet waters at the end of last year. David Hickling, Pocock and Shaw's surveyor, says that without evidence the site would boost business, the company could not have justified the investment. Instead, it has kept costs down by utilising existing hardware at its offices and sub-contracting the design and maintenance of the site to local third parties. The information at the site is updated in-house and "takes as long as my typing", says Hickling.
Hickling is sceptical that the addition of a scanner would significantly enhance the utility or appearance of the site. "We tried it and the quality wasn't very good," he says. So the company has concentrated on convenience rather than appearance, and it has found that many customers appreciate the extra dimension the site lends to Pocock & Shaw's service. "We've found that once they know it's there, people use it regularly, particularly customers like the universities," he says.
If any location is going to take to a local online property information service, it ought to be Cambridge, a university city with the ideal combination of a constantly shifting population and a high incidence of Web-enabled desktops. In fact, Hickling is uncertain whether the site has really generated very much new business: "It has produced some enquiries from outside the area, including quite a few from abroad, but I wouldn't say it has made a huge difference."
For the time being, Pocock & Shaw is satisfied that in terms of customer response, its site has at least justified the initial small investment.
The future may hold greater things, including the eventual inclusion of a network of estate Web sites which is starting to appear in East Anglia (www.home.co.uk). It also has the potential to provide an umbrella site for estate agents nationwide and a one-stop site for those who need to move house in a hurry.
Pocock & Shaw
Launched December 1995
Designed by NetPotential, Cambridge
Target audience Home and commercial property buyers
Competitors More estate agents join the Net daily
Setup Service rented from Dungeon, an ISP
Setup cost #1,000
Running cost #20 per month
Hits per day N/A.
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