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April 2001: Volume 43, Number 4

The Little Search Engine that Could -- Making It about the Water Industry, http://waterquality.about.com
by Ronald Y. Perez, WC&P Senior Editor

One of many tools tied to the Internet making all our lives a little easier is the search engine. Whether you yahoo, ask jeeves or are just googling around, these engines have turned our potentially futile experiences into more delightful ones. With their help, we uncover the information we need in order to find the cheapest summertime ticket to Mexico, discover the origin of the phrase "dead ringer," or file a monthly website column in a timely manner.

The trouble with some search engines, however, is they often give very general information on whatever subject we're researching. As a result, if we get any links at all, they're often peripheral and thus irrelevant to our initial purpose. With this in mind, I was quite intrigued when a colleague recently handed me a rather forgettable flier describing a well-known search engine -- about.com -- and its recent expansion to include specific industries. On almost any other occasion, I would toss it into the recycle bin -- if only because we've discussed the site briefly in previous columns. And God knows how many of these dot.com promos I see come through the office.

Then I began to think, "Perhaps about.com added a tie to the water industry." It's been my experience that, for some reason, many entities -- both on and off the Internet -- view water as a commodity, something along the lines of cattle shares, rather than a business. Somewhat gullible, I typed in www.about.com/industry. I followed the "Industry Topics" button until stumbling upon Energy/Environment. Underneath, the last entry read "Water Quality." OK, so water doesn't have its own category, but I'm already here so I might as well take a peek, I thought.

In search of... water
Much to my surprise, the site impresses me right from the start. It's easy to maneuver as well as having clear boundaries between separate departments and categories. The copy is clean and clearly separated into cohesive departments. In short, it's as easy on the eyes as Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue (just without certain water-related, visual aids). It may not have 20-something models, but the site does boast Laura Loverde, who serves as the unofficial hostess. According to the bio, she "has spent more than eight years in the water and hazardous waste industry." Her email is available for those who have an inquiry on their water or water treatment products.

Let's begin with the five major headings on the home page -- Subjects, In the Spotlight, News Feed, Essentials and Related Sites. Subjects, located at the left, lists five sub-headings -- News, Industry Research, Insiders, Networking/Career and Commerce. News provides up-to-date (same-day news items) information on the water and wastewater industries. A big plus here is the inclusion of press releases from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, a list of journals and magazines is provided as well as other online sources. After all, a search engine is only as good as its links to other sites. A spotlight archive allows you to search old items on previous home pages.

Next, Industry Research gives the low-down on topics such as drinking water, groundwater and surface water. Health and safety updates are supplied with an option to have water samples analyzed. At this point, it makes me wonder if the other industries profiled at this search engine are done as comprehensively as this one. Quite impressive considering the site doesn't overcompensate by way of tons of stories to assist you rather than provide useful contacts and answers to practical questions about water.

Links to the inside
"Insiders" gives you the scoop on what events and associations may best serve specific needs or segments of the industry. Links to water and wastewater businesses (i.e., Azurix, Severn Trent Services, Universal Aqua) are supplied along with some e-commerce news from various organizations.

For those in the industry or looking to make headway in their businesses, "Networking/Career" gives guidance on associations, certifications and professional development. An "Ask the Expert" section is a nice tool to have for those who would like some more in-depth knowledge of the workplace and get the word from the horse's mouth (professionals within the field). Further down the page, I found an interesting tidbit in the form of a "Salary Data" section. Punching in a few data lines, I discovered that a chemical engineer, level 3 in Concord, N.H., can expect to earn approximately $75,086. Just something to keep in mind if you plan to make a career or location change.

Finally, Commerce is the site's avenue of connecting with companies through listings that are solicited here. Plus, books and software options regarding the water industry are some of the available resources.

Stroll through the library
If not careful, you may miss the Subject Library button under "Subjects." Strictly speaking, this would be the one to use if you have a specific title in mind. From associations to wetlands, it gives an alphabetical listing of numerous water topics to peruse before embarking on a more specific search.

What good would a site be if it didn't allow for direct purchase for products and services? Once I clicked here, I didn't see where water-related industries would fit in among the sectors listed. Instead, I used the search function and typed in "water treatment" for a list of companies. In turn I was given 18 names. Obviously, this all coincides with companies who wish to have a paid-for listing available to you. Back to the home page, the option of a free newsletter can be sent to you via email.

News you can use
Moving on to the next major heading, In the Spotlight -- near the middle of the home page -- is basically your one-stop for information on recent news in the industry. From news at home to international happenings, you will find it here at the site. News Feed and Essentials are located under In the Spotlight and serve as complementary resources. I found the Site Index to be a helpful feature; however, it begs for more expansion. It lists some common terms or keywords and points you in the right direction for more information on such topics as arsenic, pollutants and regulations.

To the right of the home page, Related Sites is nothing more than an invitation to other sectors under the about.com domain. Periphery topics include air quality, environmental issues and waste management.

It should be noted that nearly every page at the site contains a sponsored links section near the bottom/center. Again, this is essentially an extension of about.com to lure you to their other websites. In its defense, the self-promotion never gets in the way of informing you or hindering the site's maneuverability. Besides, when you deal with search engines, this is but a small price to pay for such a valuable resource.

Conclusion
Initially skeptical, I found myself converted as a believer that at least one search engine can serve as a direct guide to the water industry. Sure, other engines will eventually get you where you want to be when looking for information, but about.com has taken it one step further by becoming industry-specific. As far as water is concerned, the site proves its mettle through simplification without sacrificing relevance.

Putting the A.B.O.U.T. in www.about.com/industry

Application: The site tends to drift toward the industrial side of things, but there's enough information here to pacify even the most critical visitor.

Breakthrough: About.com has achieved a nice balance of news and inside industry information that cover up the various facets of the commerce-driven site.

Organized: The layout is easy to read and you don't get bogged down with needless information.

Understated: Who needs flash when 99 percent of visitors come here for quick references, not a sideshow.

Total: Combine the interactive tools with selective, useful news and you get a worthy presentation of a water site.

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