What's Happening? City Guides Can Give You the Lowdown

Where to Eat, What to See, How to Get There

by Rebecca Quick
© 1998, The Wall Street Journal
9 July 1998

Every day people use the Internet to search the globe for information. But the World Wide Web can be just as useful when you want to find out what's going on in your backyard.

The Web can help whether you're looking for a good place to eat, searching for a veterinarian or just keeping tabs on the PTA. City guides on-line take the event listings that have served as staples for city magazines and newspapers, then add a host of new capabilities: maps that help you find your destination, questionnaires that can make recommendations tailored to your interests and -- perhaps most important -- the ability to search thousands of entries in the blink of an eye.

That's an ideal use of the medium, and that's why new-media companies large and small are trying to get in on the action. Among the biggest players are Microsoft Corp. with its Sidewalk guides, America Online Inc.'s Digital Cities sites and City Search Inc., whose backers include Washington Post Co. and Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Nearly all these sites are free. Their creators are betting that ad revenue from big national brands and, increasingly, local businesses will pay the way. But so far that hasn't been the case. Even Microsoft streamlined operations at its Sidewalk guides earlier this year.

If you're looking for local information, don't depend exclusively on the city guides. Though some offer detailed restaurant reviews and event listings, others are little more than repackaged yellow pages. There are other sources of local news, including sites from newspapers, city governments, TV stations and city magazines.

With that caveat in mind, here are some common questions people have when looking for local services -- and how cyberspace can provide some of those answers.

What Can I Do Saturday?

Most of the big-city guides center around entertainment -- where to eat, what movies to see. They are an excellent first stop, if you happen to live in one of the major metropolitan areas covered by them.

For example, if you live in Boston, you can check out Sidewalk's Boston site. Click on the events section, go to the "special events" section and find nearly a hundred activities -- everything from a Chowder Festival to a light show at the harbor. (But breadth doesn't always come with depth. Click on the intriguing-sounding "Encampment of the King's Rangers" to find out what it is, and all Sidewalk tells you is: "Learn about the Colonists who remained loyal to the king of England.")

Unfortunately, Sidewalk only covers nine U.S. cities. City Search also has limited coverage.

So if you live in, say, Valparaiso, Ind., you need another strategy. Try using one of the major search engines to track down an independent city guide. Type "Valparaiso" into Yahoo! and you get a list of categories, including one for city guides. Another click beams you to Valpo Today, a community site where you learn about this weekend's sand-sculpture contest at the Indiana Dunes Park on Lake Michigan.

How Do I Find a Good Chinese Restaurant?

Again, the city guides are a good place to start, if your city is covered by one. But sometimes a review is just a quick one-liner or a few uncritical comments. If you look up Chinese restaurants on CitySearch's San Francisco guide, for instance, many of the "reviews" read like ads from the restaurant in question. For more in-depth information, try the popular Zagat survey on Time Warner Inc.'s Pathfinder, which has restaurant reviews for about 40 cities. If you are in a city or town that isn't covered by one of these, odds are there is a Web site out there with reviews from some local foodie.

To find these, go to Yahoo! or another search engine and type in something like "Buffalo" and "restaurant reviews." That leads you to Bill Rapaport's guide to restaurants in Buffalo, N.Y. Mr. Rapaport, an associate professor of computer science at the State University of New York [at Buffalo], rates over 100 local eateries for fun.

You can get the real scoop from these amateur local guides, whose owners aren't trying to make money off ads. For instance, Mr. Rapaport warns that the wait for a table at one local establishment was far too long. Plus, he adds, "the guy who was taking names was exceedingly rude and impolite." Of course, with these home-grown efforts you never know whether a restaurant winning favorable reviews is run by the site owner's brother.

If you know you like the reviews in a print publication for your hometown, look for an on-line edition. Philadelphia magazine, a monthly about that city, offers an on-line outpost with a searchable database of local restaurants.

How Do I Get to...?

City guides often come with built-in directions. Trying to get to an event in New York's Brooklyn borough? Next to its description of the event, Sidewalk New York has a button that provides a street map and shows the closest subway stops.

If you're starting with just an address, map sites can show you the way -- and print out step-by-step directions. Need to figure out how to get to the boss's party? Go to a site like MapQuest, which, after you type in your starting and ending address, will create door-to-door directions, complete with a map.

MapsOnUs, a site owned by Switchboard Inc., takes that concept a step further. Type in a starting point and ending point and the site will create a map showing multiple routes. If you're looking for the scenic route, you can even tell the planner to avoid highways.

How Can I Find Out About The City Council Meeting?

This type of news isn't readily available on any of the major city guides. But this is exactly the type of information some municipal Web sites are stepping up to provide. First stop: Check a search engine to see if your city hall has a Web site.

Your hometown chamber of commerce is another good place to find information on local politics. The Broken Arrow, Okla., Chamber of Commerce's Web site, for example, informs visitors that the organization is in favor of expediting the renovation of a local expressway. The site also provides the names of chamber committee members and tells how to get in touch with them.

For a more objective look at what is happening, try the local media. Hundreds of newspapers -- from the Detroit Free Press to Foster's Daily Democrat in Dover, N.H. -- have set up Web sites. Here, you can search a database for recent stories or get information on community happenings and public records -- everything from driver's license revocations to real-estate sales. Also, local radio and television stations are rapidly adding outposts in cyberspace. You can finds links to these on the home pages of the big TV networks.

Where Can I Find a Good Plumber?

If you need to locate a service, directory services such as GTE Corp.'s BigBook offer all kinds of categories you can skim to locate a professional in your area, from dentists to lawyers to real-estate agents. Another site, Four11, offers similar services.

But often with these digital yellow pages, all you get are plain old listings. Better, of course, would be recommendations on local stores or services. You may have a tough time finding one for a plumber, but often you can find help if you need information on a hobby or task. Photo Net, for example, is a photography site set up by Philip Greenspun, a photography devotee. He tells visitors the skinny on camera shops in New York City in a section titled "Where to buy a camera, i.e., which NY shop that won't rob you blind." To find such special-interest sites, it's usually fastest to go to a search engine -- seeking, in this instance, "photography" and "New York City."

Again, all the same caveats apply in trusting the data you find on the Web: You don't know what's influencing the person rating the goods and services, how reliable their recommendations are or how updated the information may be. But the same goes for information available in the real world. Besides, what do you want for free?

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