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Web Directories Demonstrate an Enduring Online Law

Magazine article Online

Web Directories Demonstrate an Enduring Online Law

Article excerpt

Let me preface this month's column by stating an enduring principle of online information-the Law of Merging Models.

It holds that, over time, online services come to resemble each other. Though they may begin with different models, they borrow successful and popular features-databases, services, search options-from each other, until it's hard to tell them apart.

This then changes the terms of competition. At first, online services stand out and compete on the basis of distinctive content or search features. As they merge toward commodity status, competition occurs more on price and other "non-product" elements, such as marketing and partnerships.

The Law of Merging Models seems to apply to many other products, such as cars and computers, but certainly not to everything. I'll leave further development of this to the business historians.

The Law of Merging Models has applied throughout the development of the professional online services.

From the beginning, services with diverse origins adopted databases, search features, and pricing structures from one another. Although they are not yet purely generic, there is a great deal of overlap. It sometimes takes a close comparison to differentiate between them, and competition is now based strongly on price.

The Law applies even more strongly to the consumer online services. By the mid-1980s, CompuServe had evolved the basic design of consumer online. Since then, all its successors-Delphi, America Online, GEnie, Prodigy, early Microsoft Network, and a host of failed imitators-have followed it closely. Some at first tried something new, such as Prodigy's emphasis on transactional services, but they soon felt the Law's enforcement arm-the market-jerking them into compliance.

The Law's effects on consumer online are less apparent now, since so many services have disappeared or become marginalized. Only America Online remains as a thriving consumer online service, yet it is remarkable how much AOL of 1998 resembles CompuServe of a decade ago. The main difference is the Web, but as we'll see, even the mighty Internet is subject to the Law of

Merging Models.


The main reason the consumer services have withered is that their roles have been taken over by the Web. In one of last year's columns ("Web Succeeds Consumer Services as Consumer Online Medium," ONLINE, July/August 1997, pp. 67-69), I described how all the basic informational, transactional, and communications features of the consumer online services were available on the Web, where they were free of connect rate charges, dedicated software, and other proprietary service obstacles.

This evolution has taken another big surge, with the transformation of the major Web directory servicesExcite, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo! These too are merging toward a common model, as an all-around Web utility (or "portal," which is the new term of art), that is indistinguishable from the classic consumer online service. Feature by feature, they are offering sets of services that replicate those of CompuServe and all its followers, according to the iron dictates of the Law of Merging Models.

The Web directories are aggregators-they do for Web sites what proprietary online services do for individual databases. They create virtually no content themselves, but instead add value through links to well-chosen sites in a host of topics.

Often they will refer to the same site for the same function-Web site/ database producers, such as Reuters, MapQuest, and Classified 2000 are linked to by several directories. With so much content in common, the competition is based on user-friendliness, number of features, and marketing.


All four services act as classified subject directories to selected Web sites, chosen for their quality, dependability, and lack of illicit content.

Their classification systems look much alike. …

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