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Electronic Cash

Nothing beats paper money for making untraceable payments from one person to another, although there is plenty of research into ways of doing this electronically. Until recently, real money has also been the only easy way of receiving a big payment from one person and using the proceeds to make several smaller ones - providing all transactions take place within the same country, and at places which you normally visit. This is changing.

For the time being, the successful electronic systems are extensions of the credit card section of the existing banking system. Even before the World Wide Web, it was easy to buy from a mail order company by quoting details of your credit card over the telephone, without ever signing a bit of paper. Fraud occurred, but the losses were acceptable in exchange for the convenience. For a while, buyers sent their credit card numbers across the Net in much the same way, but nowadays you should expect to use an encrypted 'secure' link if you give your card details to a Web merchant.

The rapidly-growing popularity of Web-based auctions has seen a need for person-to-person rather than person-to-merchant payments. It is expensive and comparatively difficult to become an authorised receiver of credit card payments, but if you can only accept mailed cheques, bank transfers and similar slow payment methods you will lose a lot of potential customers. Two new payment systems have gained popularity during the past year - one is gift certificates, the other is effectively a merchant sub-account provide by an electronic mall.

To find out about the underlying technology used for the gift certificates, visit ecount.com. To see two examples of products which use the technology, visit webcertificate.com, which issues certificates valid at practically every online store in existence, or take a look at Microsoft eShop Certificates, useable at all stores in Microsoft's eShop online mall. You have to buy a certificate using your credit card, then you can use it yourself or give it to someone else - like a book token, except that it is valid in about a million on-line stores. The receiver of the token can use it up a bit at a time, and even top it up, until it is all spent. The merchant accepts the token for payment by using the system he already uses to accept credit cards. E-count says that systems based on their technology will soon exist which allow person-to-person transfers without accessing any credit card account, but none exist today.

I have found one example of a mall offering to pay sellers without them having to open merchant accounts for credit cards - amazon.com. For people selling through their Auctions or zSHOPS, they will handle credit card transactions on behalf of the seller and transfer the proceeds to his bank, for a fee that is less than most sellers would pay for a merchant account. However, for the moment this service is only available to sellers who have a credit card issued to a US address and who also have a US checking account. Watch this space - the extra trade generated by providing such a facility must be huge, so there is definitely an incentive to do something for the rest of the world.

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Aim at a big target audience

One way of getting lots of visitors to your site is to provide something with broad appeal, even if it has little or no connection with what you want to sell. This guy doesn't even sell anything - he just created a personal page that gets 2,500 hits a day!

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Fings ain't wot they useter be

More accurately, Botswana is different from my childhood home of Tanganyika in unexpected ways. Here are some things I miss:

And here are some things I treasure about Botswana:

If you came from somewhere else (or of you belong here but have been to other places) tell me your impressions of Botswana.

Getting people to view your site.

There's no point in creating a Web site if no-one visits it. That means that you have to know a bit about how your target audience finds sites they are interested in. In practice, they can find you in three different ways:

        - They feed keywords to Yahoo!, Infoseek, or whatever other search
            engine they prefer, and browse the first few responses.

        - They follow links from a site they are already visiting.

        - Their friends tell them about your site.

Therefore, you have to try to do three things - fix it so that you appear near the head of the results list for key words or phrases your target audience is likely to use, get links provided by sites which your target audience is likely to visit frequently, and make your site so interesting and effective that everyone wants to tell their friends about it.

The first is quite difficult to do, because the search engines each use slightly different approaches, and they have long been wise to simple tricks like excessive repetition of critical keywords. The third comes automatically if your site is well designed (sadly, very few are). The second is just another aspect of the 'thread-following' approach we all use, even when we start with the Yellow Pages:

-- .....
-- Rra?
-- Could I speak to the boss, please?
-- Fred here. Can I help you?
-- I hope so. Do you stock Wurzel Grommets?
-- Sorry, Sir, we don't.
-- Can you suggest anywhere else I could try?
-- I have occasionally seen them in Game. You could try there.
-- Thanks.

For international visitors beyond the reach of the Setswana language, "Rra?" can be translated as "Sir?". For "Game" try "K-Mart", "Continent", "Carrefour", or whatever your local hypermarket is called.

You need to do a bit of research. Find sites likely to interest your target audience (those dealing in complementary products - it is very rare to see direct competitors providing links to one another's sites). With luck, sites will have counters showing how often they have been visited, but you really want to know how popular they are now - so check after a week to see how many new 'hits' they have had. Once you have chosen your sites, you have to contact each owner and sell the idea of providing a link to your own site. What you offer in exchange can vary - a reciprocal link is the obvious choice for sites in the same league as yours. Where the other guy is much bigger than you, there may be no way you can set up a deal, but if you like that kind of challenge, go ahead and try.

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