Why the Web Doesn't Need a Yellow Pages

The Best Guide to the Web is Itself

April 14, 1995

Note: One of the points of this piece, as it appeared in a newspaper, was how frustrating it is to encounter Web addresses in a print medium and not be able to click upon them. In moving the column to the Web itself, we've activated those links.

By Scott Rosenberg

Finally, you're hooked up to the Internet, and you're ready to explore. You wander the floor at last week's Internet World trade show in San Jose, and one booth after another is peddling World Wide Web guidebooks, tourbooks, Yellow Pages, and the like.

Seems like a good investment, right? Wrong.

Getting your home computer onto the Internet is a potentially daunting enterprise, one you may need help with. That's why books like Adam Engst's "Internet Starter Kit" have sold so many copies. These books explain how to get to the net, and often come with the software you need to do so.

In the days when the Internet consisted exclusively of mailing lists, newsgroups and file archives, net "catalogs" made sense, too. Thus the value of a book like Ed Krol's "Whole Internet Catalog," a venerable bestseller in the field.

But the World Wide Web -- the portion of the net that's decorated with graphics and organized by instant-access hypertext links -- is what the great majority of the Internet's newest users are excited about. And buying a "yellow pages" or any other printed guide to the Web makes about as much sense as purchasing an audio guide to garden plants. It's the wrong medium.

First of all, thousands of new sites and "home pages" get added to the Web each month. Not even the nimblest book publisher is going to be able to keep up.

More important, the very design of the Web -- what makes it attractive to users who might be daunted by the relative arcana of e-mail addressing and file transfer protocols -- is such that, once you're on it, you really don't need a guide. Web pages lead to other Web pages. The Web is a cross-referencing machine, and you follow references to other references until you're all referenced out.

If you know what you're interested in but don't know where to find it, the Web itself provides a variety of searching tools -- with colorful names like Webcrawler, Lycos and Yahoo. The Web, in other words, provides its own online Yellow Page services that are constantly updated -- and that, as a bonus, allow you to move from the listing to the destination with an easy click.

If you must have your Net advice in printed form, the slew of new magazines covering the field at least offer timelier tips. But it's precisely when we give in to this preference for the old medium that the new one winds up feeling most clumsy.

If you're working on your computer, much of the time you don't need to worry about URLs (Universal Resource Locators) -- those lengthy Web addresses that begin with "http://" and look so outlandish in newspaper columns. The computer hides this bookkeeping from you if you want it to; only when you leave cyberspace for print does it have to rear its ugly type. As a result, paradoxically, the World Wide Web comes across as far more arcane, and daunting, on the pages of books and magazines than it is in actual use.

The only sensible way to offer a guide to the Web -- and to use one -- is on the Web itself. That's why Jerry Yang and David Filo, the two Stanford grad students who maintain the Yahoo Web index, won the Internet World "Best of the Internet" award this year. That's why Gary Wolf and Michael Stein, authors of a Web guide called "Aether Madness," have placed the entire text of their Peachpit Press book on the Web -- where its listings of offbeat online sites become a guide, a tour and a reference rolled into one.

Yahoo is at http://www.yahoo.com/. "Aether Madness" is at http://www.aether.com/Aether/. Of course, if you were reading this on the Web rather than in a newspaper, you would never need to see that coding.

It's like the old real-estate pitches for new developments by the sides of highways: "If you lived here, you'd be home by now." On the Web, if you clicked here, you'd be there by now.

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