The panelists were asked which site they preferred, which one made it easier to buy books and what services they liked.
To test the sites' purchase processes, we asked the panelists to select three books and go through the buying steps as though they were actually going to purchase something.
Several of the panelists had already visited Amazon.com, but none had checked out the Barnes & Noble site before.
For the overall site choice, Barnes & Noble beat Amazon.com 71-59. Although both sides claimed their site was faster to download and easier to navigate, the consensus was that the Barnes & Noble site was more "elegantly designed" and "content-rich," while the Amazon.com site was "simple" and "less cluttered."
The features most mentioned by the panelists were the search engines. Most people felt that Amazon.com's searching features were simpler to use than Barnes & Noble's, while some people couldn't get Barnes & Noble's search engine to work at all.
SEARCH ENGINES DIFFER
As for the search results, some panelists found that Amazon.com's results were not as refined as Barnes & Noble's, bringing up many items that were very marginally related to the keywords.
As for which site made it easier to buy books, Amazon.com (63) nosed out Barnes & Noble (56), while 11 people felt that neither site was better. Forty-six of the panelists who preferred Barnes & Noble's site overall also preferred its shopping method; 16 preferred Amazon.com's shopping procedures; and nine had no preference.
Of the people who had originally preferred Amazon.com, 47 said Amazon.com made it easier to buy, 10 said Barnes & Noble made it easier to buy, and two said neither site stood out.
A few panelists did comparison shopping with the same books at each site. Prices were generally lower at Barnes & Noble, by about 10% to 20%.
Some panelists found bargains at Amazon.com, but only for an individual book or due to a special promotion. The most dramatic difference was cited by a panelist who claimed to have found a book at Barnes & Noble for $13, which was priced at $45 at Amazon.com's site.
We also received a wide variety of responses about the services offered. Often panelists raved about a particular feature at one of the sites, when the other site had a nearly identical feature, evidently undiscovered.
Many of the panelists mentioned features with reviews and recommendations at both sites. Another popular feature at both sites is a section with "reviews from real folks." People like the idea of being able to read other people's opinions and offer their own.
Lynda Frohman is director of online services for New York-based CLT Research Associates, which offers the WebScore service. She can be e-mailed at email@example.com.