More of Less in Web Consolidation

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Like the cable industry, the Web is consolidating -- but in
an entirely different way. Web users are increasing their focus on a relatively small
cluster of sites, despite the continuing explosion of specialized content. This pattern
should be a warning sign for broadband-content wannabes.

The growing reach of a handful of Web sites offers
testament to the value of branding. Nonetheless, the usage trend seems counterintuitive,
given the overall boom in Web access; the continual introduction of new, glitzy and
targeted sites; and the increase in promotions to drive surfers directly to a specific
site, not just portals or search engines.

The amount of time spent online grew an amazing 36 percent
from July 1998 to July 1999, while the average number of unique pages viewed per visit
jumped 25 percent during that period, according to Media
Metrix
, the digital-research company.

According to Media Metrix data, the average Internet user
spent 7.9 hours online last month, compared to 5.8 hours the previous July. That works out
to about 15 minutes every single day -- even in the midsummer vacation months.

And that doesn't count the get-a-life gang, which spends
several hours surfing each day. But Media Metrix's other data points offer a more curious
insight into today's transitory online customer. On the one hand, research indicates that
the typical customer looked at 40.1 unique pages last month, compared with 32.2 pages a
year ago. On the other hand, customers are lingering longer on preferred sites, which
suggests they are going into greater depth when they find a topic of interest -- and a
site they like and trust.

In other words, the Web has moved on from overall habit
formation (another study this month identified new forms of Web addiction) to a stage in
which users are forming specific preference habits.

In what the Los Angeles Times called "a rapid
narrowing of attention," the U.S. surfing population spent 35 percent of its online
time on just 50 sites, up from 27 percent last year. A separate Nielsen/NetRatings study
found that the 10 largest mega-sites attracted 21 percent of all Web users. PC Data gauged
that five minutes of each online hour are spent on Yahoo! alone.

In short, it pays to be big, to have a brand and to
offer depth.

This becomes significant when we consider the shifting
value of portals. Black Entertainment Television's
recently announced and well-financed proposal for an ethnic portal comes at a time when
portals seem to be losing momentum --yet another Web whim that had its six months of
popularity.

Certainly, a handful of general-interest portals remain
successful. The July Media Metrix data show that the most visited Web sites are the
aggregators that combine portal and search engine functions. And as always, America Online, Yahoo, Microsoft, Lycos, Go and Excite rank at the
top.

Of equal significance, only a handful of media-related
sites are scattered throughout the 50 favorite Web sites -- and most of them offer search
engine capabilities. Among the most popular sites with portal components are Go Network
(with its Disney-ABC-ESPN parent tie-in), Microsoft (with its MSNBC connection plus its
extensive transactional services such as Expedia and CarPoint) plus Snap and Xoom.com (soon
to be joined under the new NBCi umbrella).

Also in the Media Metrix July Top 50 list: Time Warner Online, Viacom,
The Weather Channel, Sony
Online
and News
Corp. Online
-- all with various big-media
connections, although not necessarily their TV-related properties.

Further down the roster are sites such as Sportsline USA (with its CBS tie-in), CitySearch/Ticketmaster (part of Diller's USA
Networks cluster) plus CNET and ZDNet -- although the computer-focus of the last two is
more material than their alliances with video channels.

More telling: the Top 10 sites -- those general purpose
search engines and portals -- attract more than 10 million unique visitors per month. In
other words at least one of every six Web users heads to those pages; in the case of AOL,
Yahoo and Microsoft: well over half of Web users check in regularly. Other media-allied
sites are lucky to get 1-in-10 Web users to visit, despite the aforementioned
consolidation in usage and the heavy cross-media branding promotions.

So where does this leave portals -- especially
special-interest portals -- in an environment where Web surfers are already picking
favorites and building intuitive capabilities to find what they want? Certainly a handful
of search-engine/portal combos will survive, bolstered by their cross-media capabilities.

But, as the deluge of health, finance and women's portals
are demonstrating, Web users quickly learn how to build habits, concentrating on specific
interests. Although cross-media hype may encourage them to check out a site, it takes
compelling and constantly updated content to bring them back.

Today's usage consolidation testifies that they do come
back. Especially since it's so easy to ignore all the other Web choices.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen drills right past the
portals into the core content.

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