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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Contact Deborah Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408)
920-5922. Reprinted with permission.