When Susan DeFife launched her Women's Connection Online Web site three years ago, the Internet was an experimental frontier used mainly by male computer buffs.
Conventional wisdom held that women -- who then made up only 5 percent of the online population -- simply weren't interested in technology and would never go online.
How times have changed.
"When I started out, I was my audience," said DeFife, whose site provides information and news for busy professional women.
"That gives my target audience hope. I'm not a techie coming to talk with them and tell them why they should be online. I'm a woman just like them who used my computer to word process only four years ago. I was looking for a way to bring women together to share ideas and information."
DeFife saw the lack of women online as a business opportunity, and now she's reaping the rewards.
Women's Connection Online secured its first round of venture capital funding earlier this year, it's chock full of advertisers, and it provides E-commerce setups for $35 a month.
"Our community members still will have a need for 'gender-neutral' sites like Wall Street Journal Interactive, but they also want information they can't find on these sites," DeFife said.
"For example, less than 1.6 percent of the venture capital money in this country goes to women-owned businesses, and many women business owners have difficulty getting bank loans. Clearly, there's a need for women to get more information on access to capital."
Clearly, women are an appealing, and growing, target for advertisers. The number of women online has jumped to 19.5 million, or 40 percent of the online population. They're expected to make up 45 percent by 2002, according to Jupiter Communications.
Women make about 70 percent of all purchasing decisions, so winning their attention would be a boon for advertisers. Wired women also tend to be more educated and affluent than their offline counterparts, and technologically savvy. Among small-business owners, more women have company Web sites than men.
But figuring out exactly what these masses of women want has been a trial-and-error experience for many companies and content providers.
Experts agree that women, as a whole, use the Internet mainly to communicate and gather facts. They tend to like interactive features, but they aren't enamored with technology and aimless surfing, like many of their male counterparts.
"Women use the Web as a tool, not a toy," Gina Carrubo, founder of Women's Wire, said.
Angele Kapp, spokeswoman for Estee Lauder Companies' cosmetics Web sites, agreed.
"A woman wants to go in, get what they want, and move on," said Kapp.
But Kathryn Creech, general manager of Hearst Corp.'s HomeArts Network, warned against lumping all women together. She urged content providers to avoid stereotypes.
"It's not 'one size fits all,' " said Creech, who's in charge of Web-ifying magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Country Living. "We say 'woman,' and there's this picture in our mind. We need to recognize the diversity that's out there."
The content of some sites, such as Women's Wire and Cybergrrl, mirrors traditional women's magazines, heavy on the horoscopes and letters from the lovelorn.
Others, such as DeFife's Women's Connection Online and Salon's Mothers Who Think section, target highly educated working women who are seeking information and advice about general life issues and balancing career and family.
Even Internet giant America Online has jumped into the fray. It unveiled a women-oriented site called Electra on Monday.
But technology-oriented sites still draw the vast majority of women, according to Internet auditing firm Relevant Knowledge Inc.
Such sites as Yahoo!, Netscape, and Excite -- which help people access and sort out information on the Internet -- rank among the top sites for both men and women. And when it comes to content, technology-heavy sites also draw the greatest number of women viewers. For instance, CNet and ZDNet attract the most female viewers, ahead of even CNN, according to Relevant Knowledge's November figures.
But although women are logging on in droves, analysts say wired women will never reach the levels of their male counterparts, in part because females account for a disproportionate number of the poor, who can't afford computers. Plus, many senior women were never in jobs in which they learned to use computers. Or, they were out of the workforce altogether.
But the future outlook is bright, especially as more schools go online and more kids get wired.
Currently, the ratio of elementary- and middle-school-age girls to boys is the same online as offline. The numbers drop slightly during the teen years, however, because content for adolescent girls isn't as strong. Plus, most teen-age girls are highly social, spending much of their time talking with peers on the phone or in person. But the proliferation of E-mail and sites aimed at teens will level the figures eventually, analysts said.
"We see the Internet becoming more of a social place for girls," DeFife said.
Analysts say women also will jump online as more and more homes get computers.
"As computers are brought into the household for children, women are taking a much more active role," DeFife said.