January 6, 1998 4:00 AM PST

Search engines, online services meld in 1997

Call it the "Year of the Channel."

The message on the Web has always been, "It's the content, stupid." And in Greatest hits of 1997 1997, as the Net gained a hold in mainstream America, it became clear that Netizens not only want great content, but they generally want it to be free, well-organized, accessible, and packed with useful, reliable information.

In other words, they want everything.

In 1997 they found that there were any number of places--from traditional search engines such as Yahoo and Excite to software companies, online services such as America Online and Microsoft Network, and start-ups--that delivered, or at least promised to deliver.

Web sites reorganized and launched, trying to morph themselves into that perfect site--the one so well-organized, so fast, and so filled with information that surfers need go nowhere else.

In 1996, the distinction between search engines, online services, and free centralized sites was fairly clear. In 1997, the lines began to blur and have grown increasingly fuzzy. By the end of 1998, with so many companies adopting similar interfaces and strategies, there might not be any discernible distinctions among different kinds of sites.

The reason for the evolution? All Web companies have the same wish: to earn the hallowed spot of home page in everyone's browsers.

In other words, they all seemed to figure out the same secret recipe for success on the Net and then raced to their virtual kitchens to cook it up. It goes something like this: Create channels featuring the different aspects of the Net such as news and shopping; add hot content; and throw in a few spicy goods, such as free email or instant messaging clients. Then entice surfers to your page, tempt them to stay there with delicious content, and then lure them back again and again.

While many companies transformed their pages, others added new ones and some, such as Snap, owned by CNET (publisher of NEWS.COM), launched completely new search engine-like services, hoping to put a dent in both the strong search market and in online giant America Online's market dominance.

AOL got wise to the trend pretty fast and got into the act itself.

Leveraging its powerful brand name, AOL decided to extend its dominance from its proprietary service to the Web. During the fall of 1997, it started pumping some of its own steroids into its Web page, transforming it from a fancy bulletin board advertising the online service into a bona fide destination Web site complete with search, channels, Web-based email for its members, and a bag of tricks aimed at pleasing the crowds.

AOL's prime competitor, Microsoft Network, also got into the act.

To be fair, MSN has had a strongly Web-oriented strategy since its relaunch in October 1996, when the company decided to kill off the proprietary network and put everything on the Web with both free and fee-based content.

But despite pouring millions of dollars into the effort, it still finds itself lagging behind AOL.

MSN is clearly hoping that won't last for long. As the year came to a close, Microsoft announced two important deals that are clearly aimed at luring surfers.

For one, the company will add a search engine built by Inktomi and code-named "Yukon" to its sites.

And just last week, it announced what could amount to the partnership that puts it in contention with AOL's strength of 10 million members: on New Year's Eve, Microsoft announced it had purchased free email provider Hotmail.

Free email fever started heating up over the summer, and going into 1998, it has evolved from an extra to a must-have feature for any Web site with aspirations of becoming a home page.

Microsoft clearly saw the writing on the wall and, in typical Microsoft fashion, instead of simply partnering with a free email company, it bought one--and an industry leader, at that.

The move, Microsoft hopes, will allow it to plant advertising featuring its own products in customers' email boxes without being accused of spamming. Microsoft is also banking on drawing Hotmail customers to its fold.

In the year's 11th hour, Microsoft also added innocuous-looking pull-down menus to its sites as added inducement to stay within the Microsoft circle. As small as the actual menus are, the concept reinforces the larger trend.

CompuServe, which is being purchased by AOL, got into the act as well.

Just in time for the new year, CompuServe moved its content onto the Web and into a service it calls "C."

Although AOL, MSN, and CompuServe are online services, novice users might have a tough time distinguishing between them and traditional search engines or even large company Web pages, such as Netscape.

And that's precisely the point.

Clearly the hope is that Netizens will have no need to go anywhere else but Microsoft. Or AOL. Or Yahoo. Or Snap. Or Netscape--depending on one's perspective.

Just choose practically any company with a big Internet presence and ask its chief executive about plans for the future on the Net, and you are likely to hear the same story about content and traffic and channels, peppered with words like "synergy," "market share," and, of course, "clicks."

 

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