Hyperlinks in orange, 24/7 polling - the Web keeps going and ...

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In technology, change happens a lot, and lately I've seen two different cases where change has helped two companies better define what they do, and who they are, for the public.

The first time I tried a ThirdVoice product, I hated it. ThirdVoice originally offered a software program that, once downloaded, allowed you to "leave" a note on other people's Web sites that could be read by people who had also downloaded the software. But I, and more than a few others, thought this "trick" basically interfered with Web pages in a way that could create some real problems for people who operated controversial Web sites, and could eventually create legal problems for ThirdVoice.

But to their credit, the folks at ThirdVoice never took my publicly expressed reservations personally. So when they asked me to meet with Elaine Bolle, their new CEO, I was happy to comply.

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I was even happier after I saw how they had taken their original idea and created a program that comes as close to being a "real" personal Web assistant as anything I have yet seen.

Once you download and install the new version (which is available at www.thirdvoice.com), key words on every Web page you visit are highlighted in orange. (The words aren't highlighted on the actual site. The ThirdVoice software has a "dictionary" of more than 2 million words or phrases that it searches for, and then turns into the distinctive orange links only visible when using ThirdVoice - which you can turn on or off in your browser's tool bar.)

After you select a word, phrase, name, etc., a window opens with links to Web sites relevant to the word(s), links to online stores that sell related goods or services, and a chance to create a community around the word (a riff on the old purpose of the software, but much less intrusive). You'll also find a dictionary and a thesaurus.

The newest version of the software will be available Sept. 22.

Last week, InterSurvey announced a new "corporate" identity makeover, and officials now call their company Knowledge Networks. But what Knowledge Networks does remains basically the same as InterSurvey - only better.

Knowledge Networks has created a "panel" of 100,000 people (and they hope to make it 250,000 by next year). Each member of the panel receives a specially designed Microsoft WebTV box that connects them to the Internet. Knowledge Networks pays for the box and the cost of Internet service, if the members agree to do surveys, about one a week, on a variety of topics. (All personal data collected by the company remains personal and is only devulged in aggregate terms.)

Panel members can take the surveys whenever they like. As a result, the response rate for these surveys is 70 to 90 percent - an absolutely amazing statistic. And it gives those hiring the company a 360-degree view of the consumer.

When the founders set the company up, they knew of the "digital divide" that exists in America. So Knowledge Network made sure that people who weren't online became members of the panel. This eliminates the main concern about using the Internet to survey people - that only those from certain socioeconomic groups had computers and were online.

The company is already beginning to make a stir in the industry. It's a very, very good idea, one that takes the utility of the Web and joins it to scientific polling practices.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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