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by Lloyd A. de Vries

Vol. 16 - Surfin' Safari

It really IS the World Wide Web.

Not only can stamp collectors get a wealth of information on the Internet about philately, but they can get it direct from the postal administrations that issue the stamps.

And many countries maintain philatelic sites in ENGLISH — even if that's not one of the official languages. Germany and the Netherlands? Ja. Portugal? Sim. Israel? Cain — it took a little longer to climb aboard the band-wagon, even though some really innovative software, both online and off, has been developed there. Even Latvia and Pakistan have English-language sites on the Internet.

Why? Because not only are there many stamp collectors — that is, potential customers — in English-speaking countries, but English also is pretty much the language of the Internet.

Sure, there are hold-outs — for example, Spain and Mexico only have sites in Spanish, and if Mexico has any information from later than 1995, I can't find it, and while France has an English section on its postal site, it doesn't include stamp collecting. (It includes postal services, because "La Poste intends to become one of the best European mail services and leading postal services group in Europe," as it says on its Web site. In English.

Here's a tip when surfing a site in a foreign language: Look for a small British flag. That seems to be the symbol for English text.

While the Web may be wide, it's rapidly not becoming as free as it once was. Services that were once free are now charging; services that were once low-priced are now charging more.

There are two major factors at work here:

One, advertising revenue for Internet sites has fallen significantly. Not only has advertising in all media been off, as businesses worried whether we were having a slowdown or recession, but banner ads on Web sites don't seem to have generated the referrals that were expected. As a result, the fees for "click-throughs" — surfers who click on an ad and go to the advertised site — are 'way down.

The logic behind discounting the Internet ad response fees may be faulty: There are no "click-throughs" for magazine or newspaper ads, nor any for television and radio commercials. (The exception there is that many of the commercials that say "call now" are what's called "per-response" spots: The station is paid based on how sales are made by customers calling a special number or citing that station. And if you see such an ad on TV, you know the station was pretty desperate to sell that time!)

Since most advertisers use a variety of media at any one time, it's hard to pinpoint whether that customer who just walked in the door did so because she saw an ad in the local paper, a national magazine, word-of-mouth...or the Internet.

However, while you can't measure "eyeballs on a page" in the print media, it's fairly easy to quantify click-throughs, so the instant-gratification crowd expects immediate sales from its Internet advertising.

The other fact at work here is that many of us have come to depend on the Internet. We've had the "free trial offer," and now if we want to keep the convenience and services, we'll have to pay for them.

So, on the one hand, Web sites aren't making as much money from advertising, and on the other hand, they know they have us.

What's the relevance for philately?

Right now, you can get most of the latest philatelic news free on the Internet. You'll miss the depth of reporting in the print media, and you may have to check several places. There's also no guarantee that all the "news" is true and fairly reported, except from name-brand sources — but that's just as true of some philatelic print reports I've seen or telephoned rumors.

In the next few years, though, I think more of the free sources will become subscription-only. The free sites that remain will use a variety of advertising media, such as pop-up windows, banners, and audio to grab your attention, whether you want it grabbed or not.

Other services on the Internet are becoming more expensive and less remunerative, now that we're hooked. Fees are going up, rewards are going down. You'll pay more to use financial services like PayPal and your bank, more to list auction lots on eBay, more to search for a newspaper article or piece of clip art.

Way back in the early 1960s, science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," or the acronym "TANSTAAFL."

Boy, was he right!

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