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Arbiters of What's Cool on the Web

Computers: Navigation firms and other workaday cyber-surfers make it their business to rank 'hot' sites for Net users' fickle tastes.


When Richard Grimes signs on to his computer every morning, he is greeted by hundreds of e-mail messages, some complimentary, a few insulting, but most beseeching him to check out a site on the World Wide Web.

His correspondents are hoping to be picked as the "Cool Site of the Day," and Grimes, a staff member for InfiNet Co., an Internet access company, is the delegated judge. Working from a lowly cubicle in InfiNet's office in Norfolk, Va., he spends his days surfing the Web, checking out new sites.

"All that stuff you see out there is my baby," said Grimes of the turquoise and purple Web page ( Not only does it single out the day's coolest Web site from the vastness of cyberspace, it also provides an archive, a chatty column, reflections on the meaning of "cool" and, with People Online and Apple Computer, sponsored the second annual "Cool Site of the Year" award ceremonies.

"I think we put out something unique," said Grimes, who routinely checks out 200 sites a day. Although InfiNet believes it was first with the idea, he said, they already have more than 40 cool Web site competitors. "People want cutting-edge; they want exciting; they want new, and they want cool. I try to find it."

At 30, the former newspaper columnist finds himself with a job description that didn't exist a few years ago. As a professional Web surfer, he's among a small industry of people who, almost by default, have become major gatekeepers to the chaotic world of the Internet, sometimes described as a library with all the books dumped onto the middle of the floor.

Getting around the Web is relatively easy if you know your destination, because every Web page has an address, or URL, that begins with the code "http://." But if you want to do research, or just poke around the most interesting sites, you need guidance, just like a telephone caller who doesn't have the number. "A lot of first-timers come on and don't know where to go," said Chris Holten, spokeswoman for the popular browser Netscape.

To fill the gap, dozens of navigating tools have been introduced in the past two years. Some organize the sites by category, like monstrous electronic Yellow Pages. Some, like Grimes' site, are devoted only to listing what's cool, what's new or, in some cases, what's the worst on the Web. Others are search engines, such as Yahoo, Excite, Lycos and Web Crawler, allowing the user to type in a search word or phrase and responding with a listing of thousands of sites that have been reviewed and ranked.

What these services share is a passion to hang on to every visitor (partly to please their advertisers), so they are increasingly loading up their sites with such attractions as news headlines, weather reports and, to signify cachet, what's cool. "Our figures went through the roof when we were named the Cool Site of the Day," said Daniel Kron, publisher of Just Sports for Women, a new online magazine. "We haven't had a day like that since--almost 10,000 hits."

(The definition of "cool" is so subjective that sometimes the cool offerings appear under the "What's Hot" heading, but the implication is the same.)

Sitting in their cubicles or work stations or at home PCs and Macs, the Web surfers filter out, in Grimes' words, "the boring, the banal and the gross," always seeking a spot that will hold the attention of a fickle audience--the hip, young, upscale 15% of the population presumed to be navigating its way around the Net.

Surfers monitor the competition and try to be current. If the Boston Marathon is coming up, there will be neat sites, Grimes said. "I found one this time with actual cameras that let you effortlessly run alongside the runners."

"It's very competitive, and the point is to get people to stay on your page," said T. Sumner Robinson of Los Angeles, an editorial manager for Excite (, a search tool that continually reviews and ranks new Web sites. Based in Mountain View, Calif., but with an editorial staff around the country, Excite promotes its reviewers as "the world's best editorial team."

In a field dominated by people in their 20s, Excite emphasizes the experience of eight editorial managers who are older than 50, said Robinson, 51. "We have a mix of a young team of founders and the judgment and wisdom of experienced site reviewers."

He believes that gives more depth to their choices. If someone enters a search word, as many as a million sites might be available and 60,000 would have been reviewed and ranked by the Excite team. "You want people to trust your site. We try to review in a hip, attitudinal way, but 'cool' is still a good description of what we're looking for."

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