Paved With Good Intentions

CitySearch prepares to replace Sidewalk with something more concrete

Sidewalk, the highly touted online entertainment guide that Seattle software giant Microsoft pumped up fast and deflated even faster, is scheduled to fade away next month, absorbed by its new owner, Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch. The switchover will mark the end of Sidewalk's presence in the Twin Cities and about 70 other cities across the United States. But more than that, it will mark the end of a vision of the Internet that never really took off.

In the Twin Cities, Sidewalk's demise is likely to be less jarring than elsewhere in the nation. While Microsoft has maintained its local arts-and-entertainment guide here since July 1997, CitySearch, based in Pasadena, California, had not yet rolled out a Twin Cities site when the sale was announced in July. (The $280 million deal was finalized this past week.) People accustomed to searching Sidewalk for movie listings or restaurant reviews will see pretty much the same information on the CitySearch site, just in a different format, explains Tom McInerney, CitySearch's chief financial officer. "It will be less dramatic than in cities where we were already, because there you're blending two different city guides." Adding to the local continuity is the fact that five of the seven current full-time Sidewalk employees will stay on with CitySearch, McInerney says.

But while people will find at CitySearch many of the same concert calendars and sports stories they saw on Sidewalk, the new site will also be prominently peppered with something Microsoft didn't offer: lots of little Ticketmaster icons that invite browsers to buy tickets online at the click of a mouse. And that, industry watchers say, is the greatest indication of the change truly at hand: from content to commerce.

In late 1996, as he was putting the finishing touches on the St. Paul Pioneer Press's new Pioneer Planet Web site, David Fryxell was wooed away to Sidewalk as its first Twin Cities employee. His job was to get the Internet amalgam of local newspaper and city guidebook up and running here. "It was an interesting integration," Fryxell reminisces. "Changing-content stories on top of the most complete guide in the Twin Cities that had been built at the time--it was really an incredibly deep, rich information resource. If you wanted a lake to canoe at, a theater to go to, we'd have the information. We ultimately wanted to expand to cover other content beyond entertainment kinds of things."

Those were the Web's early years, when large companies like Microsoft and U S West, as well as startups like the then little-known California company CitySearch, rushed to offer local content on the Internet. The assumption was that local content, and local "communities" online, would boom. But they didn't. And neither did the advertising dollars that companies like Microsoft had counted on.

"In the Web world, local information is not the most popular thing people are looking for," says Peter Krasilovsky, program director for the Kelsey Group, a New Jersey Internet consulting firm. "It's not the equivalent of what we see as the newspaper in the 1950s."

When ad revenue failed to materialize, changes began popping up on city-guide sites in general, and Sidewalk in particular. Last fall what had begun as an arts-and-entertainment guide shifted toward yellow-pages-style directories and shopping, chasing the Internet's new dream, electronic commerce. Fryxell was gone by then, having moved to Cincinnati to manage a group of arts magazines and Web sites. But he'd seen the change coming: "I could sense that there was less enthusiasm on the part of Microsoft for the kind of site it had started out to be. The executives who came in had more of a background in shopping. That was more of what their interest was."

That's no secret, says Kevin Wueste, Microsoft's general manager of commerce services, who oversaw Sidewalk since 1996. "Doing links and great technology does not in itself create consumer value," he asserts. "Content still matters," but making money is just as important, he adds, and "we thought Ticketmaster would get there faster."

Says CitySearch's McInerney: "Sidewalk and city guides have been a great place for information. Now the next generation, which we're in the middle of, is adding places to get things done. That's one of the changes people will see." Within the next few months on CitySearch, McInerney says, the "getting things done" concept will expand to include the technology to make hotel and restaurant reservations, auction merchandise locally, find a date, and, of course, buy tickets.

Speaking of tickets, according to McInerney, two-thirds of CitySearch's revenue comes from Ticketmaster Online's sales, the rest from online ad sales and from the site's other services, such as monthly membership fees from Match.com, a Web dating site the company owns. His goal for the site, he says, is to help people figure out what they want to do, then allow them to act on it: Buy tickets to your favorite band's concert, make reservations at a nearby restaurant, find a date to go with you.

All the attributes of "a yuppie lifestyle," ventures Krasilovsky, the Internet consultant. "And you can make money from that. They do have a real revenue source."

It's a very different model from the content-driven sites Sidewalk originally envisioned, which were to be supported, like newspapers, by ad sales. "They realized that getting the best food critic in town didn't result in many more page views," Krasilovsky says bluntly. CitySearch itself offered a large amount of very local neighborhood information in its early incarnations but quickly moved away from that idea, he notes. "Nobody went on the Web to look at it. It wasn't drawing users in the first place, and it wasn't getting them to come back."

Still, Fryxell isn't convinced that Sidewalk, as originally conceived, was a failure. "The format we started out with was phenomenally successful," he maintains. "Usage was growing every month. We had a really great staff that created a really great thing. It's sad to think it won't be there, at least in the form we created."

An increase in the number of people who visited the site isn't necessarily a measure of success, Krasilovsky counters. Bringing people back, he contends, is the only way a city guide can thrive; most people online today only visit a city guide one or twice a month. "When it's three or four times a week," he says, "then it's successful." And promising them the capability to complete transactions may be one way to draw people back frequently--an online community of sorts.

"It's not what we envisioned when the Web started," Krasilovsky says of the Internet's move from community to community-of-commerce. "It's a different vision."

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