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Car Corner
Hot Rod & Car Craft Magazines Go Online

March 1, 2001
By Scott Lewis

A few months ago I was contemplating what it would take for Hot Rod magazine to go online with a web site. Thankfully for me they finally went online. In fact, they went online with Car Craft magazine (another Petersen Publishing, EMAP USA, magazine) as well. These are my two favorite automotive magazines, period! So I have anxiously awaiting this for a long time. In fact, I have wanted to link to them in my Favorites since I built this web site.

I was planning on writing an article on what Hot Rod should do to build on online magazine. I am glad that I don't have to do that. I build Intranet sites for a living, however, building company specific data delivery web sites is very different than building an automotive (or any other topic) magazine web site that has a much larger audience. Also, the sites I build are supposed to be used as the primary source for the data we provide. Hot Rod magazine is a very long standing publication that is not (I hope) going to be replaced. All this means a lot of complicated decisions that I don't normally make in designing a web site.

I made sure to start writing these first few paragraphs before taking a look at the online magazines. I will briefly tell you a few things I think the online magazine should have, and ponder a couple of the bigger issues they should be facing with an online version of their time tested print publication.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Remember, people put out a magazine to make money. Ideally you hope that the editorial content is being created by people who's salary is paid independently of advertising revenue. But without making money there will be no magazine. So a priority is to make money. This must happen in one of a few ways. Here are the most likely ways they can try to make money with an online magazine:

  • Advertising
  • Paid Subscriptions
  • Affiliate Programs
  • Print Revenue Overflow

I am sure there are plenty of other ways for an online magazine to make money, but these are probably the most common. Obviously, I would expect advertising. In fact, I will welcome it if done properly. I would love to see ads for speed parts while reading an article on an engine buildup. I have long told people that one of the reasons I subscribe to automotive print magazines was for the targeted ads.

I haven't seen many online publications successful with a paid subscription model. Certainly I won't pay twice for a magazine, so I would stay away if it was a pay-to-read web site.

Affiliate programs have a good chance. CNET does this. They link to sites that sell the products they mention. This is not supposed to effect the content. This means they link to places to buy products regardless of whether they like the product or not. This is a very successful program for CNET. Hot Rod should definitely work on something like this. However, due to the narrower focus of Hot Rod's audience it will be harder to get such a program to reach success.

Finally, they may just let the web site operate at a loss. Basically they could consider maintaining the web site as a part of the operating expense of the print magazine. In this sense the online version would be a supplement to the print magazine and vice-versa.

Hot Rod has to be careful. I assume one of the reasons they are just now going online with a content site is they fear losing revenue if they put all their content online. I would expect them not to put all their content online, but instead provide a subset and/or complimentary information online.

Content is King

Hot Rod & Car Craft should stay true to their heritage, so we should expect to see feature cars, technical articles, product spotlights, reader submitted cars, columns, race & event coverage, etc. Being online they have an opportunity to provide some interactive content. That means discussion forums and chat sessions. Personally I never messed with chat sessions, but a good forum for topic discussion would be a nice added value for these sites. 

(Note: I have read that the majority of those that contribute to discussion groups are those that are the most offensive. If I were going to provide a message forum, myself, I would monitor it to keep it polite and topic oriented. Otherwise it will be just a place for people to rant. Hardly a place for people to get any value or for any serious money making opportunities.)

As stated earlier, I would expect some overlap in coverage between online and print. There should be references to issues with page numbers to the additional coverage available in the print magazine. This would be especially important if they are using the online magazine to support the print edition.

I would like to see the current issue's table of contents online. Some of those articles should be available online. Of course, some material should be unique to the web site. I would really like to see them maintain a proper history of their table of contents. It should be easy to lookup last month's or even earlier month's table of contents. Even a search on previous table of contents would help people who save their print magazines.

Any content that on the site should remain online indefinitely. Disc space is cheap so there is really no good reason to purge old content online. It is just a matter of creating a decent archive to make searching and browsing old content easy. This is more important with automotive content. Automotive technology does not change as fast as technology in other industries. I can find project car build-ups from 10 years ago that are still relevant today, and many of the parts are still available. At the minimum history should be available from the birth of the site forward.

The Review

So how well did these sites measure up? Pretty good for now, but I can see room for improvement.

Each site has its main navigation on the left. This would seem to support a lot of what I expected to see. There are areas for cars, tech article, projects, etc. However this did not come without flaws. For starters there were inconsistencies with the navigation. Selecting Featured Cars brings up a nice paged index of cars on the site with a mini search engine to limit the index. However there where 38 cars available without using the mini search, but 54 cars when I limited to Chevrolet only. Huh?

Going to Project Cars displays one project car article and the mini search engine. However the search engine doesn't allow for generic searches, only make and model specific project cars, down to the year if you want. There are better ways to index or categorize projects. As an example I followed the search sequence to my favorite car... a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. That lead me to a project for a 69 Camaro, but there were only 3 of 5 parts to an article available. Part I & V showed up in the search results, and part IV was linked from within part I. What happened to part II & III? Why didn't each part link to all the others? Why didn't all 3 available (and really all 5) show up in the search?

As another test I did a generic project car search on just Chevrolet. That returned a large number of articles broken down into categories such as Interior, Chassis, Engine, etc. Why don't they let me do searches by those categories? Better yet why isn't it clear on the initial page that they index articles by category as well as make and model?

Next I went to Tech Articles. That listed a few articles in three different categories. Cool, but it used the same mini search that only allows make and model searches. Oops.

The overall look of the sites are clean but there is a lot of real estate giving to navigation. On a 1024x768 display the pages look great. However at 800x600 the content gets crowded requiring too much scrolling.

These sites are not just framed, they are very framed. You cannot save pages to your favorites. I am not sure of the reason for this since they provide "e-mail to a friend" and "bookmark" options on the pages themselves. Their bookmark feature provides an internal bookmark you can access from within the site as part of their customization. However this is counter intuitive to the way people already read & bookmark articles on the web.

The "e-mail to a friend" feature just launches your e-mail application with a link to the article in the body of a message. This is actually reasonable. At least you know exactly what your friend will see in the e-mail. And this turns out to be the only way you can get a link to an article that can be bookmarked the normal way.

The sites are also slow. I thought that it might be me, but with an ADSL connection it should not take long periods for clicks to be recognized and for pages to be displayed. Even from work on a T3 line, the sites were painfully slow. I blame this on the amount of JavaScript code they have throughout their site, and the amount of redirection and framing of the site. All the redirects effect clicking the back button, which requires you to click at least twice to get the result you expect. I have programmed this kind of thing, and even helped a friend reduce the number of times people would have to click the back button when navigating a site. I know it is not difficult to do redirects that empty the "in between" pages and allow the back button to work as expected. For all the time they spent coding the site this is an unfortunate oversight.

Advertising needs improvement. I like that there is a link to Summit Racing and CarParts.com as part of the main navigation on the left. But when they have ads for Dodge it is a little counter productive. Remember, the idea here is targeted ads. As a hot rodder I don't buy new cars nearly as often as I buy car parts and supplies. Replace the Dodge ads with Edelbrock and Armor All ads, or places that sell those products. Come on guys, this is a perfect opportunity to show that ads on the web can work if they are properly applied.

Linking to outside sites needs improvement as well. Technical articles in the print magazine provide sidebars with the various manufacturers' contact information. On the web these should be links to the manufacturers' web sites... even to the pages of their sites that contain the products mentioned in the article. Not that there aren't links, I just didn't find them as useful as I felt they should be. For example, while looking at an article on Holley Double Pumper carburetors they had a link to CarParts, but only to a generic search on the word "carburetor." Why not link to the Holley Double Pumper carburetor in the article, or the Holley section of CarParts. Also, why wasn't there a link to Holley's web site?

Finally I was disappointed in the lack of a "Reader's Site" section. Maybe they plan this for the future. I hope so. Each site has a "Reader's Ride" section. Car Craft has a section for "Reader's Pages" in the print version. Having one online is a natural. It would allow the ability for readers to get their personal web sites linked to. In fact, there should be an easy way for people to submit sites online. Personally I feel that user submitted sites should be edited. I feel this would help maintain some level of quality, and prevent abuse. I would hate it if every Tom, Dick and Harry with any kind of web site could get linked to just by filling out a form. If/When you provide reader submitted web sites please review the submissions.

One thing bothered me. You need to register with the site to access some of its features. The part that bothers me is that they are never clear why you should register, or that it is free. People tend to shy away from registering with a site if it is not immediately clear why they should. The "Join" link should state clearly and simply that it is free to join and what it gets you. Trust me on this one. And the registration process is flawed. It seems to require you to "customize" your view of the site. They provide a "default" button, but it doesn't do anything. In fact, there is no way to leave the customize view screen. If you register you just have to know that you are done registering when you get to the customize view screen. This is poor usability. They need to improve their registration process.

As a final criticism, I was hoping for at least one regular editorial column. My favorite automotive column online is Jerry Flint's in Forbes. Both Hot Rod & Car Craft should put out a weekly column on there respective area of the automotive industry. I would love to read such columns, and it can be a great way to get people to come back to a specific spot in your site on a regular bases. Come on guys... we want editorial content too.

Conclusion

It may seem that I was hard on these sites. That is unfortunate because I really like them. Maybe I am biased, since I like the print versions a lot (I have almost every issue of Hot Rod and Car Craft since 1981 in my garage). But if you look at it from the standpoint that these magazines have created clean looking web sites that have good content then they are a home run. I hope the content grows over time. They need to improve the speed of the sites and the way they index/archive articles.

Overall I was impressed. Hopefully reader submitted sites will be added, and user submitted content will be reviewed or edited. Time will tell. I don't know if these sites can be profitable on their own. Then again I don't know if these sites are supposed to be profitable. Either way I hope they keep their clean look and plentiful articles, even if it requires a high resolution monitor to enjoy.

If you are into cars as a hobby (after all, cars are not just transportation) then you need to visit these sites.

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