Microsoft Expands Sidewalk Online Guide
By Leslie Walker
Microsoft Corp. is expanding its 10 local Sidewalk online entertainment guides today into a national network of free consumer services that will feature an electronic yellow pages and an ambitious buyer's guide.
The revamped Sidewalk, which launches this morning, will retain its entertainment channel and add a shopping service offering product reviews and other information about televisions, bicycles, cookware and a host of other items. Sidewalk also is adding information about more than 70 cities, far more than the 10, including Washington, where it now operates city guides.
Internet analysts see Sidewalk's make-over as another volley in the fierce online advertising wars between local newspapers, telephone companies and Internet start-ups, including the search engines. All are scrambling to capture local advertising dollars as businesses migrate to the World Wide Web.
"Our goal is to help consumers make better spending decisions and help them act on those decisions," said Sidewalk's national business manager, Matt Kursh. "We're not trying to be everything local."
But local competitors remain wary of the giant software maker, even though Sidewalk hasn't scored high in consumer awareness.
Randy Bennett, vice president of electronic media for the Newspaper Association of America, said newspaper executives are concerned, but less so than they were a year ago.
"The industry was sure that Microsoft would come back with a bigger and better product and will continue to spend lots of dollars until they get right," Bennett added. "So we're certainly not complacent about Microsoft."
In preview versions, the new Sidewalk service had a friendly design, with new tools for searching and customizing the information to a consumer's tastes. It allows people to make side-by-side comparisons of products and search by zip code to find stores that carry certain models. It also features articles licensed from Consumers Digest, Consumer Guide and Times Mirror magazines such as Golf Magazine, Ski Magazine and TransWorld Snowboarding.
Anne Karalekas, general manager of Sidewalk in Washington, where Microsoft competes against The Washington Post Co., said the service will help time-pressed consumers by pulling together information currently scattered across the Web.
"For example, there are now 600 television sets on the market," Karalekas said. So a TV shopper could go to Sidewalk and find a chart comparing features and prices, as well as articles explaining improved screens and other technologies or reviews of many models.
"Shopping online is fragmented space right now, and we believe Sidewalk is addressing that," Kar lek as said.
Sidewalk's business model remains unchanged – selling advertising rather than directing buyers to specific merchants and charging a sales commission. Some 6,000 advertisers have signed one-year contracts for Sidewalk, which now offers more advertising options, including stand-alone Web sites, enhanced yellow page listings and targeted ads placed next to relevant reviews or listings.
The ability to target ads to specific consumer groups appeals to local advertisers, according to research conducted this year by a Greenwich, Conn. firm, which showed that Sidewalk is drawing more interest from local advertisers than consumers
Sidewalk scored the lowest in consumer awareness among all local Internet competitors in the 20 cities surveyed this year, said Jim D'Ar can gelo, president of NFO Ad-Impact Co. NFO surveyed consumers who use the Internet to shop and found they were less interested in Sidewalk than in Internet products from local newspapers and phone companies.
"Because [advertisers] rely on Microsoft for all of their tools and business software, he said, "they are as willing or more willing to give Microsoft a chance in advertising, which does say that once Microsoft has everything in line they are going to be a player for any of the incumbent media players to reckon with."
Microsoft officials say more than 1.4 million people visit at least one Sidewalk site each month. That's much more than tallied by Media Metrix, a traffic measuring firm that counted 828,000 Sidewalk visitors age 12 or over last month.
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