Recently, I had the unpleasant task of reviewing online car rental sites, which ranged from fair to breathtakingly awful. I am happy to report that booksellers have done a much better job with their World Wide Web services.
Three retail book sites I reviewed were attractive, relatively easy to use and mostly free of bugs. In each case I was able to find and order four test books online: a fiction and a nonfiction best-seller, a dictionary and a technical book about the Internet.
The sites varied considerably in the size of their inventories. If you are looking for something obscure or out of print, go to Amazon.com's huge online catalogue. But if you are looking for standard items or best-sellers -- as in my test case -- go where you find the lowest price. Prices varied, but no site offered consistently better or worse deals than the other sites.
Beyond that, what distinguished the services was mostly a matter of bells and whistles -- possibly useful things such as chat rooms, book news, reviews and the like.
Ordering was pretty simple, but searching was a problem. All the search engines were quirky and produced inexplicable results at times. If you don't find what you are looking for the first time, vary the words in your search or choose a different search option and try again.
Two biggies -- Barnes & Noble and Borders Books and Music -- don't have an Internet presence but say they will have Web sites soon. Barnes & Noble offers online ordering on America Online.
The most elaborate and best-known of the book-selling Web sites, Amazon.com calls itself "Earth's Biggest Bookstore." It offers access to some 2.5 million titles stored in publishers' warehouses. About 1 million of the titles are out of print.
Its Web site was varied and rich, yet easy to navigate. It had some neat features such as its "Eyes" service, which automatically sends you electronic mail when books are published on your favourite subjects or by your favourite authors.
Performance varied from poor to good, depending on the time of day. On weekday afternoons, Amazon.com was much slower than the other two services.
Amazon.com had the most advanced search options of any of the sites, something you may need if you are looking for that old, out-of-print book with the title you can't quite remember.
But the search engine had its share of quirks. For example, a search for the title 7 Habits of Highly Effective People produced just one hit, for an audio cassette with that title. But when I substituted "seven" for "7" in my request, I got several hits on cassettes and books, beginning with both "7" and "seven" but not the cassette from the first search.
Overall Grade: B
Book Stacks Unlimited.
Book Stacks offered a generally excellent site. Navigation was fast and easy, the look was clean and logical, and ordering was simple. It was one of the few Web sites I've ever visited where I never once lost my way.
A "Book Cafe" allows you to chat with other users on a variety of topics. One chat room is devoted to Agatha Christie fans, for example, and another is for computer enthusiasts. One prominent thread dealt with users' views on which Windows 95 book was best.
Books Stacks offers access to free electronic books, or "E-books", which are either old classics free of copyright restrictions or recent titles distributed free with the permission of the author. Just one glitch here: The search engine for E-books didn't work.
And searching for printed books by title was chancy. If a single word was wrong or missing, even an "of" or "and," the search engine found nothing. Searching by keyword worked better.
Overall Grade: A-
WordsWorth is the Web site for a real bookstore. At present the site has 125,000 titles online, the same ones you'd find at its Cambridge, Massachusetts, retail outlet. But the company said it will soon offer access to some 2.6 million titles at publishers' warehouses, just as Amazon.com does.
WordsWorth isn't quite as convenient as Book Stacks, because it fails to prominently display buttons for the major functions at the top of the home page. In fact, I had to click on "help" to find out how to place an order. Most of the home page is given over to special promotions, book signings, online interviews with authors and the like.
Nothing on the site says anything about how to change or cancel an order, but when I sent WordsWorth email to cancel an order placed the previous day, that did work.
WordsWorth's search engine allowed searches by author and title only. And it worked in strange ways. When I searched for "habits highly effective people", it missed the seemingly obvious "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", but retrieved such titles as "Habits of the Heart" and "Hackers & the Ant."
As part of an upgrade that could happen as early as this week, WordsWorth's search capabilities will be considerably improved, store officials say.
Overall Grade: C