Many commonplace online frustrations -- some dating all the way back to the earliest days of the Web -- remain unfixed
In its relatively short life, the,world Wide Web has already made many of our most mundane, tedious tasks quicker and easier to perform. But there are still a surprising number of activities -- from helping us buy concert tickets to protecting our privacy -- that, for one reason or another, the Web still can't get right, stirring the ire of even the most patient users. We look at 10 of the worst of them.
Beyond obvious, nagging problems such as e-mail spam, phishing lures, viruses and spyware, a great many commonplace online frustrations -- some dating all the way back to the earliest days of the Web -- remain unfixed.
We asked visitors at our online forums to identify what they consider the most dysfunctional aspects of the Web, and then we polled our readers to find out which of these problems they find the most aggravating. For each difficulty, we identified an "aggravation factor" -- the percentage of readers who were either "very annoyed" or "infuriated" by the issue. We start with the ones that irk our readers most, and work our way down.
1. Dubious privacy policies
Aggravation factor: 69%
Many business-focused Web sites -- particularly in the areas of health and financial services -- collect sensitive private information from users. The vast majority of these sites have established privacy policies to lay out what information the site collects and to delineate customers' rights. But the legal jargon in these policies is often laid on so thick that customers can't understand it, leaving them unsure about whether their private data is truly safe from misuse.
Amazon.com's online privacy notice, for example, is a 2,700-word document that links to a 2,600-word conditions-of-use page jam-packed with arcane legalese. Good luck figuring out your rights if you don't have a J.D. after your name. Privacy policies at some Web sites grant the sites very broad discretion in handling private data, including the right to use the data to market other products and services to members, and the right to share data with unknown, unnamed third parties -- leaving the person who supplied the data feeling exposed.
2. Difficult online forms
Aggravation factor: 65%
Filling out a simple form online -- be it for something as important as a loan application or as mundane as a news site registration -- can turn into an endless cycle of annoying browser refreshes. That's because online forms often mix required and optional fields without clearly distinguishing between the two. While filling out the form, you inevitably skip one of the required fields and then sometimes have to start all over again because the site wipes the page clean.
To be fair, things have improved in recent times as companies figure out that user frustration can hurt business. Still, since the problem is so easy to fix, its continued existence is mind-boggling. Site designers should clearly mark all required fields in a different color (red would work just fine). And if a user makes an error anyway, there's no reason to wipe all the fields clean. To move things along smoothly, Web site developers should highlight any field that still needs to be filled in.
3. Overcommercialization of the Web
Aggravation factor: 62%
Interstitials, pop-ups, pop-unders, noisy Flash commercials, strobe-lit banner ads, video ads that load without user action... Just another day on the Web.
The idea of pushing advertising in exchange for free Web services has led to overcommercialization of the Web -- a major turnoff for surfers. At MySpace, Yahoo and even (we have to admit it) PCWorld.com, such advertising has grown more aggressive, increasingly annoying and impossible to avoid. On cluttered Web pages, ads jostle against each other and vie for screen real estate with the content that visitors actually came to see. The result? Slower connection speeds, slower page loads and far less user control over browsers.
Advertisements affect Web content, too. When sites measure the value of content by how many eyeballs it attracts to the ads, unusual, diverse or niche content can get squeezed out in favor of more reliably popular middle-of-the-road stuff. "I think in many ways, we have missed the potential of the Web -- much like we did with television," says Mike Tinsley, a disappointed Web user in Columbus, Ind. "When [the Web] was new, it held so much promise to be so useful for education, information and even entertainment. However, much like TV, the Web has sunk to the lowest common denominator, and I'm not sure we can ever get it back," Tinsley says.
The ad-driven online content industry will continue to devise innovative, eye-catching and obnoxious advertising formats, so things won't change for the better anytime soon. At the same time, browser makers and other software utility vendors may be able to offer some respite with features designed to restrain advertising annoyances. Browser makers like Microsoft and Mozilla should, by default, block animations or video ads from taking complete control of a Web page and obscuring the content a surfer is trying to view. At the very least, they should provide users an easy way to adjust the settings manually so as to block such intrusive annoyances.
4. Need for standards
Aggravation factor: 58%
Few things are more infuriating than going to a Web site and being told, "The page you have requested requires Internet Explorer to function properly."
The historical origin of this problem is Internet Explorer's incomplete (and sometimes incorrect) support for the core standards that are used to build Web pages. Because IE commands the largest market share among browsers, many Web designers build pages not to conform to standards, but to conform to IE. With Firefox's success, more and more sites (with the notable exception of some Microsoft sites) work properly in Mozilla's browser. But that leaves users of Opera or Safari out in the cold still. From online banking applications to newer Web 2.0-style sites, pages may not load properly on all browsers, which forces people to use different browsers for different sites.
If browsers were built to meet a consistent set of standards, this hiccup would disappear. Though each new version of IE has improved its support for standards, the problem persists because so many Web site developers continue to code only for IE, or IE and Firefox.
Having trouble creating a new document in Google Docs? The site's advice is so simplistic that it is unlikely to solve any real problems.
Among the high-profile offenders in this area are Google Docs, Washington Mutual and Yahoo -- none of which supports Opera or Safari.
5. Trolls in forums
Aggravation factor: 58%
The Internet can be a spacious platform for all sorts of community interaction, provided that the participants conduct themselves in a civil manner. Too often, though, they don't.
"I hate when I am on a forum and people just post random comments about how much somebody is a jerk or how their religion saves," said PC World reader Roberta Dikeman of Dublin, Calif. "Can we please stay on topic -- or post that drivel on your own sites!"
Hiding behind the pseudonymity of a Web alias, trolls disrupt useful discussions with ludicrous rants, inane threadjackings, personal insults and abusive language, deliberately baiting forum regulars into pointless controversy and disharmony.
Trolls lurk everywhere -- in Google and Yahoo news groups, in blog comment areas, and on specialty message boards created to offer technical help to users.
The free and fruitful exchange of ideas on the Web suffers when Web community owners have to moderate discussions and keep a tight rein on membership. But such actions are among the few effective ways to maintain civility and sanity in online forums. Another approach is for users to police the community themselves by collectively ignoring or dismissing malicious interlopers.
6. Buying event tickets
Aggravation factor: 54%
Sites like Ticketmaster have managed to transform one of the Internet's biggest conveniences -- the ability to buy and print out event tickets in a few mouse clicks -- into one of its biggest rip-offs. Never mind that automated ticketing companies have dispensed with much of the traditional overhead (staff, rent, equipment) associated with selling tickets at a physical location. Never mind that they don't have to print the tickets you buy or ship them to your home.
Ticketmaster.com, the world's largest ticketing agent, adds a $9 "convenience charge" to the price of every $32.50 ticket for a concert in San Francisco, for example, plus a $4.90 "processing fee" on top of every order. So if you buy one ticket, you pay 42% of the face value of the ticket in fees to Ticketmaster! In contrast, assuming that the show isn't sold out, you can buy the same ticket at the Civic Auditorium box office sans convenience fees for $32.50 -- a savings of nearly $14.
One reason that Ticketmaster can impose such prices is that it faces little competition in the events ticketing business; the company holds exclusive contracts with the majority of venues in the U.S. In 1994, the rock band Pearl Jam famously complained to the U.S. Department of Justice that TicketMaster's high prices were made possible by a monopoly, but the DOJ ultimately decided that Ticketmaster hadn't broken any antitrust laws.
7. Web 2.0 help doesn't help
Aggravation factor: 49%
Web 2.0 technology supports the delivery of useful applications in snazzy interactive Web interfaces, but if you need help wading through the site, the help section is often a dead end.
That's because the answers to many frequently asked questions presented there are too generic or obvious to be useful. For example, an application may not work properly because an essential browser plug-in is missing or because other software on the system is incompatible with the new app, but the FAQ and help pages on most sites don't address these problems specifically.
Rather than posting unhelpfully generic help sections and FAQs that fail to answer real-world questions, companies could invest in easy-to-use forums, wikis or chat rooms, and offer incentives to customers to assist each other in a community-driven environment.
8. The expense of e-books
Aggravation factor: 41%
Publishing and distributing books in electronic format should be a lot cheaper than doing it the old hard-copy way. No trees get pulped, and shipping costs vanish. So why should readers pay the same amount (or more) for the digital version of a book? Here's an example: At eBooks.com, Rhonda Byrne's The Secret retails for $15.29. Meanwhile, at Amazon.com, a hardcover copy of the same book (shipped to your doorstep) costs $13.17. Bizarre.
On average, publishers have set e-book prices for mass-market titles at between $8 and $16, the same range that they charge for the corresponding physical books. Supposedly, much of the sticker price goes to authors, who receive the same amount in royalties per book sold, regardless of the book's form. Publishers say they are still "working out the pricing models" -- that is, figuring out what people are willing to pay for the novelty of an e-book and what effect e-book sales will have on sales of hard copies.
9. Disappointing Web video
Aggravation factor: 38%
The picture quality of video delivered over the Internet gets better by the day, but the absence of top-shelf content continues to deter many would-be viewers from making the jump to online video.
Some major networks -- especially ABC and CBS -- have begun putting TV shows on the Web, but consumers are still struggling to find their favorite programs at a reasonable price.
In its TV Shows section, Apple's iTunes Store offers episodes at $1.99 a pop, but Rafat Ali, who tracks digital media at PaidContent.org, says that not all shows are available because large content owners (including HBO) believe that making online versions of their shows available will dilute the market for their cable television offerings.
"I can't go online and buy the last season of The Sopranos because HBO won't put it online. That's a big disappointment for a lot of viewers who love HBO's content," Ali says. "There are still a lot of hesitant content owners unwilling to put everything online."
10. Boring virtual worlds
Aggravation factor: 9%
Given the promise and hype surrounding virtual worlds, or metaverses, like Second Life, we found it interesting how few of our readers care about them. More than half of our survey takers said as much, while another 25% said that they aren't bothered at all by the quality of virtual worlds.
Yankee Group analyst Christopher Collins points out that while social networks like MySpace and Facebook continue to show phenomenal growth, the biggest virtual world, Second Life, has experienced a lower rate of traffic growth since its October 2006 peak.
Newcomers to virtual worlds (many of whom were attracted by the media hype) often leave for good after struggling with the basics of moving their avatar around or communicating with others "in-world." Their efforts aren't helped by the sites' often-clunky user interfaces or by regular software glitches. As of Oct. 7, 2007, according to Second Life's statistics, its virtual world had almost 10 million "total residents" (people signed up for the site), but only 1.3 million (13%) of them had logged in during the preceding 30 days. And only about 338,000 of them had logged in during the previous seven days.
To attract wider audiences, virtual worlds will have to become at least as user-friendly, navigable and full of things to do as the real world. And they just might achieve that goal if the companies that operate them improve their software, introduce new technologies and learn lessons from their users.