Web Sites We Can't Live Without

There are millions of sites on the Web. Here is an utterly unscientific, thoroughly opinionated, and absolutely genuine review of sites that have worked their way into our daily lives.

How big is the Web, really? One attention-getting calculation, from Alexa Internet, estimated that there are more than 20 million "content areas" on the Web, that 1.5 million new pages get added to the Web every day, and that the Web doubles in size every eight months.

We don't know how accurate those figures are. What we do know is that as the Web gets bigger, we get choosier about how we spend our time on it. In fact, as we thought about how we surf across the ocean of news, opinion, and other resources available on the Web, we realized that there are fewer than a dozen sites that have become indispensable to how we do our work and how we spend our days. These sites aren't just interesting places to visit -- they've become Web sites that we can't live without: services that have worked their way into our everyday lives.

Here, then, is an utterly unscientific, thoroughly opinionated, and absolutely genuine review of the Web sites that we find to be most valuable. We also review eight Web tools that we can't live without -- everything from online dictionaries to zip-code finders -- and four email newsletters that we can't live without. We don't want you to stop surfing. But we do want you to stop long enough at these sites to see the best of what the Web has to offer.

Business Is Their Business

How did Patricia Pomerleau, 49, founder and executive editor of CEO Express! (http://www.ceo-express.com) go about building a Web site that we can't live without? By building a site that she couldn't live without. CEO Express! bills itself as a site created "by a busy executive for busy executives." Busy people at companies such as Polaroid and Oracle -- and Fast Company -- believe that it delivers the goods.

Back in the summer of 1996, Pomerleau launched a consulting company that focused on helping executives in big companies -- a group of people famous for their aversion to all things Internet -- to understand the business value of the Web. Before long, she realized that she needed a tool to direct her clients to sites that would be of maximum value to people just like them -- that is, to businesspeople who are serious about their work but who don't have time for leisurely Web surfing.

Thus was born CEO Express! "My goal wasn't to make the Internet easier to navigate," explains Pomerleau. "It was to make my clients' lives easier -- to help them get the right information as quickly as possible, so that they could get back to work." The idea worked for Pomerleau too. In June 1998, she closed down her consulting firm to focus full-time on her Web site.

Pomerleau understands the sort of information and ideas that senior executives need, and she has created a simple, well-organized set of links to that material. There's a list of newspaper links that focuses on the big-city papers that most businesspeople care about. There's also a collection of links to international-news, business, and technology magazines that offers the best of the best -- in other words, the most relevant of the most relevant. There's a collection of statistics-oriented links, as well as useful travel tools and other links that may not be of interest to teenagers or Java nerds -- but that are of great interest to businesspeople.

"Senior executives like information that's edited," Pomerleau says. "There aren't many sites of this kind that have a human editor."

CEO Express! also pays close attention to maintaining and updating all of its links. Pomerleau employs a human "link checker," who makes sure that every link on the site takes visitors to the right place. The link checker also makes sure that a site's content or philosophy hasn't changed in a way that makes the site incompatible with the mission of CEO Express!

"We are careful about making sure that our links are the best ones out there," says Pomerleau. "If we find a great link -- say, a new business-law site -- then we remove an old link to make room for the new one. Our goal isn't to have more and more links. It's to make our visitors' lives easier."

The special value of CEO Express! is its selectivity. The awesome power of Hoover's Online (http://www.hoovers.com) is its comprehensiveness. Hoover's Online is one of the very few Web sites that we pay cold, hard cash to use. It charges a monthly fee of $14.95 (or an annual fee of $109.95), and it's worth every penny. We spend lots of hours fielding pitches from companies, preparing for meetings with product evangelists -- in short, encountering businesses for the first time. Which means that we ask the same questions that businesspeople ask about a potential customer, supplier, or partner: How big is this company? How well is it doing? What's up with its stock price? What other companies does it do business with?

For the answers to these and other questions, Hoover's Online remains the best stop on the Web. The site doesn't offer any information that you can't find somewhere else. But it does offer more information in one place than any other site, along with an easy-to-use interface and a fun personality. The site provides, at no cost, capsule profiles of more than 13,500 companies -- public as well as private, inside as well as outside the United States. But it's after you pay your membership fee that Hoover's Online really pays off. Members can access insightful profiles of more than 3,400 companies and in-depth financial information -- including quarterly and annual results, stock charts, market-value calculations, and historical data -- on more than 7,500 companies.

Membership also gives you full access to affiliated Web sites, including IPO Central (http://www.ipocentral.com) -- a comprehensive source of data on U.S. companies that have filed to go public -- and StockScreener (http://www.stockscreener.com). If information is power, then Hoover's Online is a power tool of the first order. We can't live without it. If CEO Express! offers a virtual window on world news and big ideas, and if Hoover's Online is a one-stop source for information on companies that you're encountering for the first time, then Company Sleuth (http://www.companysleuth.com) gives you an indispensable daily briefing on the customers, competitors, and business partners that you can't afford to lose touch with. Think of this site as your virtual competitive-intelligence unit.

Company Sleuth is smart, targeted, timely, and easy to use. You visit the site, register, and then list up to 10 companies that you want the service to track for you. From that point on, Company Sleuth delivers a daily email briefing on developments relating to those companies. It alerts you to patents, SEC filings, analysts' ratings, stock trades, job announcements, discussion-group postings -- and lots of other useful information that is "out there" on the Web. To learn more about a specific development, just click on a live link in your email, and your browser will call up your Personal Sleuth Site, where you'll find a link to the source of that information.

Keeping Track of Technology

We don't live there, you probably don't live there, but Silicon Valley has become the de facto capital of the new economy. If you're not in touch with the companies, the venture capitalists, and the new technologies that are shaping the Valley, then you're probably not in touch with the forces that are shaping the future of business. Even in a virtual world, physical location still matters.

That's why we begin every day with In Time For . . . Reports (http://www.mercurycenter.com/svtech/reports). This page, produced by the San Jose Mercury News, is updated several times each weekday with the latest information on technology and markets.

The first report, Good Morning Silicon Valley, is posted at 8:30 a.m. PST. It gathers items -- from the Web, from wire services, and from other sources -- that are of special interest to the Valley. There's an Asia Tech Update at 10:30 a.m. PST and an Israel Tech Update at 12 noon PST. A stock-market report, called Tech Stocks, goes online at 2:30 p.m. PST, and Internet Daily ("a Net news fix from CBS Marketwatch") is posted at 3:30 p.m. PST. Monitoring these feeds is the next best thing to living in Palo Alto.

Jesse Berst, 47, had a hunch. It was 1996, and he was editorial director of "Windows Watcher," a Ziff-Davis newsletter that he had started the last time he had had a hunch -- in that case, a hunch that a new operating system from Microsoft was going to be a very big deal. This time, his hunch was about the Web: He predicted that this phenomenon would be bigger than Windows and that savvy people would eagerly turn to an insider who could make sense of Web-information overload.

Thus was born AnchorDesk (http://www.anchordesk.com). "It covers tech-related topics, it has an attitude, and it's on your side," says Berst, when asked to describe what makes his virtual publication special. "We cut through the noise. We tell you what you need to pay attention to."

Lots of people pay attention to what Berst says. About 2 million people subscribe to AnchorDesk's free email alerts, which go out five times a week. But AnchorDesk is not just an email newsletter -- it is an integrated site that combines the best of both email and the Web. As a subscriber, you receive brief emails that outline key important developments and technology evaluations. To learn more, just click on the live link embedded in each email, and travel via the Web to a story on the AnchorDesk site. You can even submit your own thoughts to Berst and other AnchorDesk editors by using the site's "Talk Back" feature. You can also print a story, or email a story to a friend, with the click of a button -- two nifty options that AnchorDesk pioneered.

Why do so many people consider AnchorDesk to be a Web site that they can't live without? "People have an enormous fear of falling behind and an enormous frustration with information overload," says Berst. "Also, people want a voice: 'I've been in this industry for a long time, I have something to say, so give me a place to be heard.' Those are the two needs that we've been trying to serve since we started."

The Only Way to Travel

Travel has become a defining (and often depressing) part of business life, and the Web is bursting with sites that can help ease the headaches associated with business travel. We haven't found many travel-oriented "killer apps" yet (maybe we just have a great travel agent!), although the American Airlines Web site (http://www.aa.com) is one service that we and millions of other travelers can't seem to live without.

There is one travel site, though, that always keeps us moving in the right direction: MapQuest (http://www.mapquest.com), which serves more than 2 million members -- and serves up more than 42 million page views per month.

MapQuest offers door-to-door driving directions for most cities within the continental United States and city-to-city directions (great for long trips) for cities throughout North America. You simply enter your origin and your destination, choose a route type (door-to-door or city-to-city), and indicate how you want the information to be displayed (overview map with text, text only, or turn-by-turn maps with text). Within seconds, you'll be able to generate a set of written directions, complete with exit numbers, total mileage, and estimated travel time.

The "Find A Map" option lets you design customized maps by entering information (address/intersection, state, zip code) or by selecting from the Quick Maps menu of 45 U.S. and international cities. Once you've created a map, you can print it, email it to a friend, or save it for viewing at a later time.

These days, business is all about change, and business travel is all about having to change plans. But nothing changes faster than the weather, which is why Weather.com (http://www.weather.com), the Web site of the much-beloved Weather Channel, is a site that we can't live without. Its simple and nifty "My Weather" feature lets you create your own weather-oriented home page right on the site. You can choose up to 5 cities from the 1,600 cities that the site tracks and up to 5 weather maps from the 175 maps that the site produces. Then, every time you sign on, you'll see the latest weather developments in and around your target cities. Another indispensable feature of "My Weather" is its neat flight-information tool. Just select an airline, enter a flight number, and specify your departure and destination airports. In a matter of moments, you'll know whether your flight is delayed.

All Work and No Play . . .

There's more to life than work, and there's more to the Web than sites that keep us up-to-date with the news or in touch with technology. We still like to catch a good flick once in a while -- and we always check out our computer screen before we head for the silver screen. MovieLink (http://www.movielink.com), a Web site produced by the MovieFone people, is the hottest ticket around.

MovieLink is easy to personalize. When you sign on for the first time, you are asked to enter your zip code. For the rest of that session -- and every time you return -- you see information only about theaters and show times in or near that zip-code area. The site lets you search by theater, title, star, type, or time. Once you choose a film, a show time, and a theater, just enter your credit-card data and the number of tickets that you want. The tickets will be waiting for you at the theater. No more getting turned away from sold-out shows. No more standing in line. Hey, where's the red carpet?

Action Item: More Sites to Surf

It's impossible to keep up with all of the resources that get added to the Web every day. But we don't want to stop discovering Web sites we can't live without. The solution? Netsurfer Digest, a weekly email published by Netsurfer Communications Inc., a Web-consulting firm based in Sunnyvale, California.

Netsurfer Digest is the smartest, savviest, and oldest scan of sites on the Web. You'll find at least one site to bookmark each week. But beware: To read the Digest, you'll need an email client that supports HTML. (The latest clients from Eudora, Netscape, and Microsoft all support that format.)

Coordinates: Netsurfer Digest, http://www.netsurf.com/nsd

Sidebar: Frequent Fliers Frequent This Site!

John Samuel, 34, managing director of interactive marketing for American Airlines, has created a Web site that millions of frequent fliers can't live without. His site (http://www.aa.com) -- unveiled in May 1995 and redesigned last June -- is the most frequently visited airline page on the Web. It draws about 1.5 million visits per week; it sends a weekly email detailing last-minute, low-fare deals to 2.1 million subscribers; and it maintains a special email list for college students that has attracted 175,000 subscribers.

In an interview with Fast Company, Samuel explained why so many people seem to find his site so hard to live without.

1. Serve your best customers first. There are 37 million members of American's AAdvantage [frequent-flier] program, about 11 million of whom are "active" -- meaning that there has been some recent activity on their account. We want our site to be the best place for our AAdvantage members to do business with American. That's the litmus test for what does and doesn't happen on the site. Already, 11% of those active members have come to the site and logged in. Even better, 25% of our top-tier customers have come to the site. We love that.

2. Email is everything. On the Web, you walk a fine line between serving customers and annoying them. Email has been a critical tool for helping us walk that line. It has allowed us to create a product that couldn't have existed otherwise -- our NetSaver service. One thing that we hope to do soon is what we call "customized email": We'll wrap the NetSaver product around other content and s services,o that when people receive email from us, it will be tailored to their travel interests.

3. To get through, get personal. Personalization goes to the heart of what we're trying to do with this site: We want to let people check miles, book tickets, and change travel plans. But personalization is hard. Lots of companies are struggling to persuade customers to give them personal information. So you must be clear with your customers about the benefits that they'll get if they give you that information. Obviously, our customers know that they earn miles and get trips through the AAdvantage program. Still, we constantly remind them of those benefits. When you log onto our site, for example, you'll see your name and how many AAdvantage miles you have -- in the upper right-hand corner, in big letters and numbers. People love that.

The other big challenge involves creating enough real content to make customization work. Here's one small example: When we posted a message telling people in the Chicago area that construction on I-90 would mean that they'd need to allow more time to get to O'Hare, we got great feedback. But it takes a lot of work to come up with that kind of specific and timely content for hundreds of different categories of customers.

Coordinates: John Samuel, john_samuel@amrcorp.com

Sidebar: 4 Email Newsletters We Can't Live Without

Sure, we spend lots of time visiting Web sites that we can't live without. But we like it even better when the Web comes to us. That's why, as hard as it is to imagine life without the Web, it's harder to imagine life without email newsletters. Here are four of our favorites.

Subscribing to InfoBeat News is like receiving a personalized newspaper in your inbox every day. This free service offers a daily summary of wire-service reports, business and financial news, entertainment and human-interest stories, and more. If you want to learn more about a story, just click on the headline, and you'll be transferred to the InfoBeat Web site. Apparently, we're not the only people who love this service. Each day, InfoBeat sends out more than 4 million email newsletters.

Coordinates: InfoBeat News, http://www.infobeat.com

Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Newsletter is published daily. It focuses on "matters that affect your own next vacation trip -- and nothing else." Each day, you receive reports on hotel and airfare specials, news developments that can affect your travel plans, and exotic package deals. The newsletter is offered in other formats; we recommend the multimedia version, which allows you to view images and live links.

Coordinates: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Newsletter, http://www.frommers.com

Don't have time to think about the weekend until it's already here? You can plan ahead effortlessly by subscribing to the Sidewalk e-mail. A service of Microsoft's Sidewalk.com, this free weekly email highlights concerts, art openings, sporting events, and other local happenings. The newsletter is available for Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, the Twin Cities, and Washington, DC. In most cases, the email goes out on Thursday, but the timing varies from city to city.

Coordinates: Sidewalk e-mail, http://www.sidewalk.com

Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. To get our daily dose, we subscribe to Ditherati, a five-day-a-week email that highlights a quote by a high-tech executive and frames it with subtle commentary. One recent email (titled "That's Redmond Jargon For 'Screwed' ") highlighted this quote, in which a Disney executive describes negotiating with Microsoft: "I felt like we were being, you know, leveraged."

Coordinates: Ditherati, http://www.ditherati.com

Sidebar: 8 Web Tools We Can't Live Without

Most of the Web sites we can't live without serve up ideas, analysis, or in-depth information on topics about which we care deeply. But there's another category of sites that have worked their way into our everyday life. We think of them as Web tools: sites designed to perform specific functions or to solve specific problems.

For example, we can't live without online dictionaries. To get a fast definition of a word, we consult Dictionary.com (http://www.dictionary.com). Reference works that are searchable on the site include Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, Jargon File, The Elements, Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary, Hitchcock's Bible Names Dictionary, and The CIA World Factbook. The site also links to other online dictionaries and language resources that we can't live without, including Roget's Thesaurus (http://www.thesaurus.com) and Bartlett's Quotations (http://www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/bartlett).

If you're still having trouble with the meaning of a word, try OneLook Dictionaries (http://www.onelook.com). OneLook is not an online dictionary. Rather, it's a specialized search engine that queries nearly 450 online dictionaries, all of them hosted by other Web sites. When the search for a word has run its course, OneLook supplies links to definitions and to the home pages of the relevant dictionaries.

Other tools help you reach people. Just because we spend lots of time on the Web doesn't mean that we can live without snail mail or the telephone. The U.S. Postal Service's Zip Code Lookup and Address Information site (http://www.usps.gov/ncsc) helps eliminate some of the headaches that are associated with ordinary mail. Do you know a street address but not the zip code that goes with it? Did you forget the postal abbreviation for a state? Before you head to the mailbox, head to the Web.

There's a similar troubleshooting service for the telephone. Do you have an area code but no idea which area (and thus which time zone) the code applies to? Do you have an international number but not the country code that goes with it? Just go to 555-1212.com (http://www.555-1212.com) before you dial the phone, and you'll find the information you need.

Another part of the telephone experience is the Yellow Pages -- perhaps the most underrated networking tool in business. Say you live in Boston and need the Yellow Pages for Boise, Idaho. Don't call your phone company: You'll wait weeks for a Yellow Pages, and you'll be charged a fee for it. Instead, point your browser to BigBook (http://www.bigbook.com), powered by GTE's SuperPages service. The site offers listings from more than 5,000 Yellow Pages directories. You can search by keyword, company name, or type of business. Once you find an address, you can click on it to call up maps and directions.

Enough about headaches. What about a challenge that we all face -- the pursuit of lifelong learning? Learn2.com (http://www.learn2.com) is "the ability utility." It offers step-by-step instructions -- or "2torials" -- on a wide array of activities, hobbies, and tasks. The skills taught in its nearly 200 tutorials range from the mundane (how to change a flat) to the truly eclectic (how to make stained glass). Learn2.com is produced by Panmedia Corp., an online-development outfit in Sausalito, California that works with companies like Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, and Bain & Co. Log on and load up -- on learning.

Associate Editor Gina Imperato (gimperato@fastcompany.com) still spends way too much time on the Web.

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