Community spirit goes online to show the internet at its best

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The Independent Online

One of the beauties of the internet is that it is a global medium capable of delivering highly localised content. And you can't get much more localised than a website catering for a local community that may only consist of a few streets or a posh housing estate.

One of the beauties of the internet is that it is a global medium capable of delivering highly localised content. And you can't get much more localised than a website catering for a local community that may only consist of a few streets or a posh housing estate.

Sites such as these are starting to crop up all over the country, some run out of back bedrooms by willing local residents. Fancy selling your house for £50 online without recourse to rapacious estate agents? Then log on. Need a neighbour to recommend a local builder or plumber they'd be happy to use again? Tap in.

In many ways these kinds of services show the internet at its best. Web-sites can be set up to cater for tiny communities that would never be adequately covered by even the most local of local newspapers.

Some of these sites are really quite good. For example, www.ChiswickW4.com, a site focused on the Chiswick area of west London, offers everything from local news to property listings. The "local issues" section includes items such as "40 reasons why the Piccadilly Line should stop at Turnham Green" and a "Forum" section on famous people born in the area (Mel Smith, Sebastian Coe and Gary Numan, apparently). The "Geronimo" section is a useful list of local tradesman other people would use again, with each given a rating on a star system.

This kind of service is also included on other sites, such as betweenthecommons.com, another "micro local" site than specialises in a tiny but well-to-do, area of south-west London between Wandsworth and Clapham Commons. Indeed this site has spawned several others in the local area, some covering just a few streets.

The main question with these sites is where are the revenues going to come from? In the case of betweenthecommons.com, the main source is from charging sellers £50 to put their house up for sale on the site. Further revenue could come from advertising and e-commerce links, though many homespun sites may lack the resources to administer these activities.

The other problem for these locally run enterprises is that competition is growing from rivals with deeper pockets. The biggest players are the local newspaper groups, which are increasingly moving online. Fish4 is the internet brand of some of the country's largest local newspaper groups, including Newsquest Media, Northcliffe Newspapers and Trinity Mirror.

The strength of these sites is their powerful local information on cars and homes for sale as well as local jobs - the three staples of regional classified advertising. Their local news content is another obvious attraction, although it does not drill down to the chatroom level of the independent sites where a homeowner can send an e-mail asking if anyone nearby can lend them a long ladder, for example.

Which model will win? In the long run we are likely to see a convergence of the two whereby the larger sites try to adopt some of the more local, folksy characteristics of the independently run operations. Northcliffe Newspapers is already running the beehive network, a community network which gives non-profit organisations a way of sharing common interests on the internet for free. The network gives local groups the tools to build their own websites. Beehive provides a home page, up to 10 news and information pages, links to other sites, an events calendar and an address book.

Meanwhile, other dot.coms, such as upmystreet, are broadening their appeal. Upmystreet, in which News International has a stake, currently offers only local information that is available on a national basis. This includes local demographic data, house prices and details on local schools and well as a Thomson Directories service on local restaurants, cinemas and so on. But it is looking to spice up its offering with "deeper data" that will drill down even further into local communities.

The appeal of these local sites is that they could potentially build substantial traffic for the major portals. So far, however, the major players have yet to capitalise on the opportunity. Yahoo! offers some local community information - its Aberdeen site, for example, only lists two primary schools and two secondary schools under its education section. AOL only offers local information on its proprietary "paid for" service. Freeserve says it is using its Smartgroups service to allow subscribers to develop their own online communities, although these could cover anything from model railways to butterfly collecting.

So perhaps the smaller independents, with their local touch, will be able to find a niche after all.

n.cope@independent.co.uk

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