From the April 1998 issue of Startups

Forget get-rich-quick Web sites: Most businesses don't make a lot of money on the Web. Still, a good site can be a terrific marketing vehicle. How can you make yours stand out from the crowd?

Start by studying several of the "pick-of-the-week sites" listed at the front doors of search engines like Excite--then spruce up your own site. Most award-winning sites are simple and well-structured, so visitors don't get lost. The best sites don't preach or boast. Rather, they seduce by being intriguing, fun and full of useful information. The Chuck E. Cheese site at http://www.chuckecheese.com, for example, offers not just company information but also contests, promotions, links and a bulletin board for children.

Good sites also make it easy for users to reach the company. Make sure you list your company's phone number and e-mail address. Set up mutual links to other related sites, and make sure your site is listed with search engines such as Alta Vista, Yahoo! and Lycos.

Finally, remember that building a site, like having a baby, is just the beginning of the work. If you're not ready for the commitment, you're probably better off without one.

Spam Scams

"Earn $100 an hour at home!" Sure, it's easy to dismiss those brazen ads when we see them pasted on cork boards and telephone poles. But when we see them on our private computer screens, we fall for them.

According to the National Consumers' League, the average number of reports of Net scams has risen from 32 per month in 1996 to nearly 100 per month last year. And so-called "spam," or unsolicited e-mail, is a favorite bait among cyberthieves.

The most common spam scams, according to the league's Fraud Information Center (http://www.fraud.org), are 1) Internet and online services; 2) general merchandise; 3) auctions; 4) pyramids and multilevel marketing; 5) business opportunities and franchises; 6) work-at-home schemes; 7) prizes and sweepstakes; 8) credit card offers; 9) book sales; and 10) magazine subscriptions.

Auctions, chat rooms, bulletin boards and Usenet newsgroups are also creeping with cybercrooks. Fully 30 percent of the foul-play reports received by the consumer-advocacy site Webguardian Inc. (http://www.webguardian.com) come from people who bought merchandise through these sources.

How do you protect yourself against online scams? By being skeptical and only working with organizations you know and trust. Keep personal information to yourself. And whatever you do, steer clear of spam.

Search Party

Sick of sifting through useless Web sites? Try honing your searches. Before you start, read the help screens listed on the front page of the search engine. These provide excellent information about the engine's search settings.

If you're searching by topic, try phrasing your search as if it were the title of a book. For example, "Cake Baking" may turn up more useful links than, say, "Angel Food." However, if you're after a specific term, such as "Kauai," use that word alone. You can also put different phrases in quotes ("Angel" "Food") or link words with a plus sign (Angel+Food) because this is how some engines search for connected terms.

Finally, use different search engines for different types of searches. If you're looking for a specific topic and know how to perform Boolean searches (connecting terms with AND, OR, or NEAR), an engine like Alta Vista can perform refined searches. For more general information, Yahoo!, Excite or Infoseek may be a better bet.

Time Bomb

The so-called millennium bug, which is expected to crash computer systems worldwide on January 1, 2000, isn't just a big-company problem. Sure, big businesses with millions of lines of mainframe computer code have garnered the media's attention. But according to Lou Marcoccio, a research director at the Stamford, Connecticut, research firm Gartner Group Inc., 10 percent of all businesses--mostly those with fewer than 2,000 employees--could lose business, have production stalled and face lawsuits from angry customers.

The big problem for small businesses is the place they occupy in the food chain of suppliers and vendors. When the computers at companies on whom we depend go down, supplies could dry up and checks could stop. By comparison, the effects of last year's UPS strike could be considered trivial.

What can you do? Get an upgrade if your software can't handle a year date beyond 2000. (PCs older than Pentiums will need to be checked, but Macintoshes can handle dates up to 2019 or beyond.) Most important, contact clients and suppliers to find out when they'll be year 2000-ready. And stick some money under a mattress, just in case.

Can We Talk?

Homebased entrepreneurs often envy their corporate counterparts for one simple reason: their dedicated computer networks. Fortunately, a new service from Netscape and Concentric Networks called Netscape Virtual Office makes it possible for at-home workers to collaborate with far-flung colleagues, clients and suppliers over a private network.

Virtual Office sets you up with an Internet account that becomes your private "corporate intranet." Since the network is secure, others can't break into it: You let Netscape know who's allowed "in." The service comes with e-mail, Web-authoring software that works like a word processor, a tool that lets you set up an electronic bulletin board, and a soon-to-be-available network calendar.

You can get Virtual Office by contacting Netscape at (650) 937-3777. Prices vary widely--from $10 to $249 a month, depending on the kind of connection you have, the number of users and the amount of disk space you'll need on Netscape's servers. But even at the top of the line, the price beats that of most plane tickets--and getting in touch is a lot quicker.

First Aid

When you have computer headaches, there's an alternative to endless phone holds for tech support. Provided your computer's modem and monitor are still working, the answer to your problem may be found somewhere in cyberspace.

Before you start surfing, write down a description of the problem--if you received an error message, make sure you take note of the kind and number. Also, check the cables linking the monitor, computer and power supply to make sure everything's plugged in and turned on.

Next, visit the technical support section of the manufacturer's Web site, where you may find FAQs, technical tips and downloadable fixes. If you don't find what you're after, you can search online bulletin boards, starting with the Usenet FAQs List (http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/hypertext/faq/usenet/top.html). If your modem isn't working but you have access to a fax machine, you can call the manufacturer and choose its fax-back service.

To ward off future problems, consider buying computer health insurance courtesy of CyberMedia Inc.'s $59.95 First Aid Deluxe '98. This software product automatically detects and fixes more than 10,000 configuration problems, warns you about upcoming hardware troubles, and searches the Internet for fixes.

Contact Sources

Cybermedia Inc., http://www.cybermedia.com

Gartner Group Inc., http://www.gartner.com

Bronwyn Fryer, a computer journalist in Santa Cruz, California, has covered technology since 1982.