Webbies spotlight 'glamour' of Web biz

Forget the Oscars. The digerati are out in force for the Webby Awards.

It's a big, glitzy awards ceremony, the most famous in its industry. It's accompanied by a lavishly hip party packed with celebrities. And it isn't the Oscars.

For an evening each Spring, the Webby Awards takes the spotlight in Silicon Valley, drawing part of its excitement from the proximity of the Academy Awards shortly afterwards.

And the winners are...

But while the three-year-old Webbies might not inspire the mass hysteria of a movie industry gala, Web site creators say the awards play a valuable part in singling out worthy sites that otherwise might be lost in the vast expanses of the Internet.

"We found that it helped build our recognition," said Lara Hoyem, spokesperson for BabyCenter.com, which won last year's award in the Home category. "We were very new to the Web when we were nominated, and it helped drive awareness in the industry and with consumers, due to the related PR."

Laura Whitlock, project director for StarChild, a NASA-run site for young astronomers, said winning the Education category last year helped the site double its traffic.

"[The Webbies] also allowed us to be linked from several new sites which have subsequently kept the traffic up," she added.

Glamorizing the Web
The awards began as a promotional tool for the magazine The Web, but survived the publication's demise last year. That's partly because it fulfills a need for a hype-laden industry festival -- something for news outlets (ZDNN included) to focus on.

International Data Group Conference Management Company now hosts the awards, which unfolds before an expected 2,000 guests at San Francisco's Herbst Theater Thursday night. (Only two years ago the show fit into a nightclub crammed with 800 people.)

But the Webbies occupy a somewhat ambiguous role. While the Oscars spin entertainment out of the entertainment industry, the Webbies make do with less glamorous material, including financial, political and health Web sites.

Where the Academy show is the biggest party of the year in an industry with a lot of big parties, most involved with the Webbies think of the event as a refreshing change from the usual settings of cubicles and business luncheons.

"The results are more of a testimony to success in the Web space ... what works and what doesn't, versus the Oscars, where it's who's in, who's out," said industry analyst Ron Rappaport of Zona Research. "The Web doesn't have that kind of trendy cachet to it ... the audience for the Webbies is more developers than people who want to know 'What can make my Web pages sizzle?' "

Hyping the hype
But both events benefit from a PR feedback loop -- hype hyping hype.

For example, a key component of the Webbies is the People's Voice Awards, based on user votes. Once a site is nominated, it will usually put a link to the Webbies on its front page, with a note encouraging its readers to vote in the Reader's Choice poll.

It's free promotion for the Webbies, which increases the award's recognition, and thereby its value to nominees and winners.

"That's really clever, when you think of how expensive an ad would be for the same effect," said Gail Williams, executive director at the pioneering Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, winners in last year's Community category.

While a win might be most valuable for startups, even an entity like The WELL, a venerable online community, can appreciate such a gesture, Williams says. The service was one of the first allowing people to interact via computer when it was founded in 1985, and was one of the first commercial sites to be allowed onto the Internet in 1992.

Williams said her company sometimes seemed to get lost in the frenzy for the Internet businesses that followed WELL's lead.

"In California ... there were settlers before gold was discovered, and then suddenly all these other people came in, and they didn't necessarily know who'd been there before," she said. "Now maybe there's some people who have heard of WELL only because we won a Webby."

Cooler than cool
The awards have some competition, such as the Cool Site of the Year Award, but so far have successfully positioned themselves as the industry's "mainstream" prize for excellence.

"In terms of awards on the Web, the Webby awards are the best," said Esther Drill, executive editor of gURL.com, winner of 1998's Living category.

Other awards include Music, Money/Business, News and Audio.

The awards are judged by members of the Webby-created International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, which includes actress Gillian Anderson, musician David Bowie, director Francis Ford Coppola and musician Bjork.


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