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City Guides Hope Net Users Will See the Sites

BY DEBORAH KONG
Mercury News Staff Writer

Posted at 11:21 a.m. PST Sunday, November 7, 1999
Posted on GoMilpitas.com with permission of the Mercury News.

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In its early days, the Web provided a guide to the far-flung corners of the world -- giving avid hikers a glimpse of what it might be like to go bushwalking in Australia, for instance.

Then, a new crop of city guides appeared, with information about hiking trails right around the corner and much more, from local news to the latest entertainment listings.

The only problem: Few people visited the sites, and merchants were reluctant to advertise there.

Now, pioneers such as America Online's Digital City and Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch are redoubling their efforts -- expanding into new cities, beefing up content and offering the ability to reserve a spot in local hotel rooms, restaurants and, eventually, even golf tee times.

Other players such as Ezyfind.com are also entering the market, focusing on helping merchants in suburban communities get online.

One factor that's fueling the change is the growing number of homes with Internet access. They're a potentially huge audience for small and medium-size businesses that are rushing to set up virtual storefronts before competitors do.

"Local commerce is certainly a burgeoning market. . . . Whoever can get the local commerce market onto the Internet is someone who's going to make a lot of money in the long run," said Yankee Group analyst Emily Meehan.

But consumers are picky. City guides that don't offer a wide range of well-informed content that is continuously updated won't make the cut, she said.

That's where a split is emerging between these city guides. While some focus primarily on providing information about a city -- event listings and local news, for example -- others say the real attraction is providing services to help merchants set up shop online.

Whatever the winning formula turns out to be -- if there is one -- San Jose State University anthropology Professor Jan English-Lueck said people do turn to the Net to learn about their communities.

"The people who are moving here use that as a major avenue for finding out what's happening in the community, what's around them," said English-Lueck, who is studying how people use technology as part of her research on the relationship between people's work and lives. "Even if they've lived in Los Gatos for 20 years, if they have to find out something about Menlo Park because they're visiting friends there, then they might use it for local content."

More than that, people want to "argue about their sports teams with people in their cities," said Paul DeBenedictis, president of AOL's Digital City.

The problem for local sites has been not just what kind of content they carry, but also the cost of producing it. Some, like Digital City, have partnered with existing media companies for everything from news stories to restaurant reviews. Others, like Microsoft's Sidewalk, recently acquired by Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, hired staff, only to cut back to make the company more efficient.

But now Digital City says it is turning a profit. CitySearch says it is making money on some pieces of its site -- online personal ads, for example.

AOL recently announced plans to expand from 60 cities to more than 200, extending its reach beyond major metro centers to areas such as Knoxville, Tenn., Tucson, Ariz., and Savannah, Ga. Its Digital City sites, first launched four years ago, offer entertainment, dining and local planning guides, directory services and local information on health and other topics.

But DeBenedictis said the strength of Digital City lies in content created by its users. That includes, for example, a heated exchange between 49ers fans on a bulletin board in its sports section, or comments about Berkeley culinary temple Chez Panisse, in the Digital City dining section.

"They want to be proud of their city or their town and they want to contribute," DeBenedictis said. "It's creating the old town square. You're allowing them to communicate again."

Knight Ridder New Media, a business unit of Knight Ridder, parent company of the Mercury News and 30 other daily newspapers in 28 U.S. markets, also hopes to appeal to consumers by emphasizing its community ties and local brands.

"There's a window for us used to be the Welcome Wagon directory for people on the Web (who are) looking for local information for the first time," Finnigan said. "Four years from now, when you look at your family budget, a lot of what you spend will be spent locally within 10 to 20 miles of your household."

Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder told financial analysts in June that the company is considering spinning off its Internet investments in the future to capitalize on the soaring stock performance of pure Internet companies.

Zip2.com, which was acquired by AltaVista, is taking an approach similar to Real Cities, partnering with local media companies such as the Houston Chronicle to offer city guides.

For Ami Hodge of San Francisco, the ability to electronically check in on community happenings is an appealing idea.

"It helps people keep abreast of what's going on," said Hodge, who has used AOL's Digital City San Francisco site. "(The guides) allow people to interact with other people within those communities to talk about what's going on and what might be troubling them, or what they're excited about."

She's been busy with a 1-year-old son lately, but in the past she used the Digital City site to check out neighborhood news and shop for a new car.

Hodge said she hasn't made any purchases through the city guide, but sites like Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch hope to change that.

CitySearch recently acquired Microsoft's Sidewalk city guides, adding 44 new cities to the 33 it already covered. Consumers can buy tickets to concerts and sporting events, check online personals and make hotel or restaurant reservations at the CitySearch sites. In the future, they'll be able to book golf tee times or reserve a tennis court, said CEO Charles Conn.

"The future of local portal or city guides will be more than just helping people decide what they want to do. It will be helping them get access to it," Conn said. "The people who are online are more likely to look like your neighbor or your mother. Those people are . . . more interested in what's happening around them."

Conn said city guides are one of the few businesses on the Web where there's a barrier to entry, "a game where you have to make an enormous commitment on the ground to be credible to real people who live in their towns."

That emphasis on content isn't the first thing competitor Ezyfind.com is focusing on, however. Ezyfind, which launched sites in 455 suburban cities last week, instead is touting the ability of local businesses to set up their own online storefronts. It offers self-publishing tools businesses can use to set up free Web pages, and plans down the road to offer those firms credit card transaction and other e-commerce capabilities.

Other content supplied by local media company partners and user-created Web sites will be added by the beginning of next year, the company said.

Major portals, such as Yahoo.com, also offer their own versions of local city guides. Ann Zeise's Milpitas site isn't exactly on that scale.

Zeise's site (www.gomilpitas.com) is a one-woman operation that's truly a grass-roots effort. Zeise, who believes a community guide can't be done properly unless its creator lives in the town it covers, attends Chamber of Commerce meetings and watches city council meetings on television.

After a recent flap about raising the flag of China over Milpitas city hall, Zeise posted government codes on flag displays on her site.

To find the names of local businesses for her site directory, "I'll literally drive around a neighborhood of businesses and stop and write their names down," she said.

"Content's very important," she said. For example, a local Milpitas resident would want to know where local Halloween parties are. "You don't care about the one in San Francisco, or New York for that matter," she said.


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Contact Deborah Kong at dkong@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5922. Reprinted with permission.

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