As the gender divide among computer users closes, more and more women are turning to the Web to find useful information and nothing-but-Net entertainment. Although there's been a boom in sites developed for and by women, only a few are worth a second look.
The Web is from Mars, women are from Venus. At least that's what people used to think. Now the logic is that women are so pressed for time and burdened by responsibilities, they need the Internet to make their lives easier.
But first, they need someone to make the Web itself easier, which explains the explosion of sites catering specifically to women.
These sites, ranging from iVillage, which launched in 1995, to Totalwoman.com, which made its debut in April, are a lot like online women's service magazines. They offer tips on homemaking, fashion, health, parenting and career. And they are remarkably similar in their visual approach: All of the six general-interest sites we reviewed follow a simple grid layout, and all but one were resplendent in yellow.
Content and tone were another matter. Too few of these sites were engaging. It's as if they extended their no-frills attitude a little too far. But others, like Oxygen.com, were rather compelling.
Let the comparison shopping begin.
The Point: Solutions for women's lives in a "well-lit, supportive, community environment."
Vital Statistics: Launched in 1995. Owned by iVillage Inc., in New York City.
Target Demo: Women 25-54.
Traffic: 5.8 million unique visitors in March.
Content: This site actually delivers on its promise of helping women find solutions to practical matters. There's a pregnancy calendar, a recipe finder, a debt-reduction tool, a Top 10 downloads for home improvement help and lots more. IVillage.com consists of 19 channels organized by subject matter: "AllHealth," "Pets," "Shopping Central," "Travel" and a new one, "Working Diva." There's music, courtesy of the iVillage Radio Network (spinning soft rock, country and something called Hits Live!). Tips are mixed in with the substance: Solution No. 129 in "21st Century Solutions, 365 Answers to Women's Everyday Problems" was how to make your lipstick last. But at least it's useful tips. IVillage also offers e-mail, personal homepages and message boards. A "Specials" section features freebies and discounts on stuff like vacation cruises and books from Amazon.com. "Shopping Central" links to products (discounts offered by online retailers) and stores (such as ibaby.com and planetrx.com). The news section acknowledges women care about more than their looks, covering sports, politics, international and health, just like a real newspaper.
Look and Feel: Has less white space than the others; there's text neatly arranged in every bit of the basic grid layout. But it works--you feel like you're being presented with lots of information.
Usability: It doesn't take a village to use this site.
Advertising Opportunities: Sponsorships, banners, buttons and sweepstakes. Sponsors/partners include Unilever, Ford Motor Company, Warner-Lambert, Charles Schwab, PNC and AT&T.
Bottom Line: A solid option. IVillage has the content and the presentation. Plus, everybody knows about the site: It's been heavily marketed, and founder Candice Carpenter has been written about in everything from The New Yorker to The Industry Standard.
The Point: To serve women "better than they've ever been served before"--and to promote cable network Oxygen TV.
Vital Statistics: Launched October 1999. Owned by Oxygen Media in New York City.
Target Demo: Women of all ages.
Traffic: For April, 3.3 million at-home users and 1.6 million at-work users (these groups overlap to some extent).
Content: Oxygen.com is smart, and it's got personality. At what other women's site would you find features like "Is bread making you broad?" It's also for the pop-culturally aware. One of the partners is GirlsOn.com, a snappy entertainment site that reviews movies, books, TV and music from a twenty-something perspective. Elsewhere, there's a newsletter, features on Oxygen programming and the requisite sweepstakes and such. But rather than hold a contest to win a vacuum cleaner, as one of the other women's sites did, Oxygen invited women to see who could write the best rock song. The contest exhorted would-be participants to "forget divas," and the panel of judges included the all-grrl band Luscious Jackson. Oxygen.com is for women who have opinions and a sense of humor--and who have never seen a made-for-TV Valerie Bertinelli movie.
Look and Feel: Much more visually interesting than its peers. Yes, it's yellow, but it's also gold and avocado green--in overlapping tint blocks that resemble an abstract lithograph that might have decorated someone's kitchen in 1974 (but in a good way). An animated "dial" breaks up the banality of the frames layout.
Usability: As intuitive as breathing.
Advertising Opportunities: Sponsorships, banners and buttons. There's also a "partner utility bar," which is integrated into Oxygen's sites and links visitors to specially created partner pages that feature tools, services and discounts. A TV "stripe," which runs continuously on the Oxygen cable network, offers information about the advertiser, from URLs to tips to "call to action" messaging. Advertisers include CoverGirl, Amazon.com and gazelle.com.
Bottom Line: Highly recommended. Everyone knows of Oxygen. And chances are, if women visit this site, they will return. It's that good.
The Point: To be "the premier" Web site for women.
Vital Statistics: Launched March 1999. Owned by She's Got Network in Palm Springs, Calif.
Target Demo: Women 21 and older.
Traffic: 500,000 hits per month.
Content: It's hard to get past the atrocious grammar at this site. An article entitled "How to Handle Unexpected 'What If's' in Speaking" provided the cure for "would of's, could of's and should of's." And when the copy's not incorrect, it's inexplicable: "Read how expanding creative expression at mid-life emerges among women today." There are roughly 25 channels, among them "Just for Laughs," "Psychic Lives," "Small Business" and the redundant "Culinary Cuisine." Articles that might have some relevance are dumbed down. "Is Your Daughter Being Treated as a Stereotype?" asks, "Are girls naturally as sweet as sugar and spice, or are teachers molding them into that by virtue of their expectations?" There's free e-mail, and links to news and message boards. This site is part of She's Got Network, which also produces ShesGotEmpowerment.com, ShesGotMoney.com, ShesGotBaby.com, ShesGotSports.com, ShesGotVote.com and the ShesGotNetwork.com portal. It's called spreading yourself too thin.
Look and Feel: The bland stock photos make it look like an old J.C. Penney catalog. The site isn't yellow, like the others. Instead, it's everything else--mostly teal with purple, fuschia, orange, royal blue, black, green and so on. There's space-age clip art, an atom and a Saturn-like planet, on either side of the logo at the top of the homepage, making it look very Jetsons, or like something produced for science class.
Usability: She's got no trouble navigating this site.
Advertising Opportunities: Sponsorships, banners and buttons. Advertisers include adbroadcast.com and The New York Times Web site.
Bottom Line: It's low quality, but someone likes it: They've got advertisers. And the ads are nice and visible. But considering the competition, it might be better to try one of She's Got Network's more specialized sites.
The Point: "Making everything click."
Vital Statistics: Launched in April. Owned by Cybereps in Sausalito, Calif.
Target Demo: Women in their late teens and up; core demo is 25-54.
Traffic: 42 million page views per month across entire network.
Content: Less than the sum of its parts. Totalwoman.com has 23 affiliate sites--among them newhomemaker.com, everythingforparents.com and socialnet.com. It has "Click Trips": Family, Fashion, Fun, Health, Heart, Home, Work and Views & Reviews. And it has tabs along the top for Fun, Dreams, Horoscopes, Games and Shop. According to the site, "not everyone is a parent or on track for a corner office." So who does that leave? People who would enjoy making their "punk" fashion statement, some 20-plus years after punk ended, or who might have a yen for dressing up Mr. Potato Head--games offered by Totalwoman.com affiliate site thinks.com. Methinks not. The games are a sign of Totalwoman's overall problem: There's nothing much crucial here. Hot colors for summer, how to grow healthy herbs, battling Lyme disease--you can get this stuff anywhere. One can imagine women having a brief courtship with this site and then running off with one of its affiliates, never to return.
Look and Feel: Orderly and sensible. The yellow here is pale and the layout follows a grid, but there are fun circles, like a target, incorporated in the logo. An L-shaped block of yellow on the left nicely frames the page. The text runs in neat vertical blocks in the center. And there is a band down the right side to highlight features and ads.
Usability: A total breeze to use.
Advertising Opportunities: Sponsorships, on- and offline promotions, contests and banners. Advertisers include Kimberly-Clark and Canyon Ranch.
Bottom Line: Too soon to tell. The site has potential, with its intriguing choice of affiliates. But it needs to develop its own voice so women will want to visit Totalwoman.com again and again.
The Point: Helping women get things done "the smart way."
Vital Statistics: Launched October 1992. Owned by Hearst HomeArts Inc., a subsidiary of Hearst Corp., based in New York.
Target Demo: They don't break it down by age. In their words, the audience comprises breadwinners, believers, trendsetters, movers, pillars and explorers.
Traffic: 5.8 million visitors in March.
Content: Offers 18 channels, such as "Career," "Cars," "Sex & Romance," "Small Business" and "Pregnancy & Baby." Despite the modern twist those categories suggest, the site's emphasis is actually fairly traditional: health and beauty, parenting and housekeeping. But even on these well-worn paths, women.com treads very lightly. Stories range from the obvious (nervous brides should force themselves to eat "little bitty things" on their big day lest they get a headache and "fade too quickly") to the obscure ("astonishing" vegetable desserts) to the curious (how to raise your child with "moral fiber"--sounds like a diet plan). On one visit, the news channel led to just three negligibly important stories: the winning lottery tickets in Michigan and Illinois, "Bourbon Blaze Shuts City" and "Making Fat Legal." The site does benefit, however, from its association with Hearst Corp., spotlighting and providing links to the publisher's women's service books--Marie Claire, Victoria, Good Housekeeping, etc. There's also a shopping section, free e-mail, Women.com Radio, a daily poll and a special content area for sponsors.
Look and Feel: It's all canary yellow and summer-squash orange. The chunky sans-serif logo, black with yellow, blue and red--better known as the primary colors--suggests something from a kids site. Still, the layout is clean and uncomplicated.
Usability: Easy as (vegetable) pie.
Advertising opportunities: Banners, promotional sponsorships such as sweepstakes, mini-sites within Women.com and ads in targeted areas. Partners include Rodale, Torstar, Bloomberg L.P., ABC News, E! Online, America Online, GO.com and Procter & Gamble.
Bottom Line: Contests, polls and sweepstakes--interactivity, in other words--are the site's strength. Women.com gave away $217,880 in prizes last year, so it has a certain stickiness. The watered-down content isn't much to talk about, but the clearly defined sponsor and partner sections, and the ever-changing banners at the tops of the pages, are worth a look.
The Point: To unite smaller women-targeted sites and grow up to be iVillage or Oxygen.com or ...
Vital Statistics: First launched in 1996, then relaunched last February as a portal. Owned by The Women's Forum Inc., of San Francisco.
Target Demo: Females 12-65.
Traffic: 1.7 million unique visitors in January.
Content: Consists of 60-plus partner sites, but they're all small-potatoes dot-coms. To become a womensforum.com partner, a site has to be "women's-focused" and attract an audience of more than 50,000 unique users or 300,000 page views a month. The sites they've partnered with (youmarriedhim.com, waycoolweddings.com and riotgrrl.com, for example) aren't terrible, but their packaging makes Copywriting 101 seem like a graduate course. The teaser for the "Fashion & Beauty" page one day was, "Summer is just around the corner! Get some tips on how to look cool in the heat." If womensforum.com were a print publication, it would be a tabloid on cheap newsprint.
Look and Feel: Like spray-painted carnations--mustard yellow with hot-pink titles. The illustrated flower serving as the "dot" in WomensForum.com makes the logo look like it came straight off of a feminine-protection pamphlet from the Fifties.
Usability: Simple in every way.
Advertising Opportunities: Banners, sponsorships, co-branding, category exclusivity and keywords. Advertisers include SpotOn.com.
Bottom Line: There are better ways to spend your ad dollars.