Online Original: City Guides: Let's Go To Denver!

I've just accepted a job in Denver, a city where I've spent only four days in my entire life. Like all job migrants, I'm excited but apprehensive. The unknown -- an attraction in my twenties, when I went off to live in Tokyo just because I liked Japanese food -- is more a source of fear now. I no longer have the luxury of dropping myself into a new location and taking a few months to get culturally acclimated before seeking work. I've got to hit the proverbial ground running, and the only way to do that comfortably is to minimize my ignorance of my new home before stepping off the plane.

Internet to the rescue? Whether the occasion is relocation, vacation, or a business trip, various players on the Web are getting into the city guide business. Anyone who has traveled with a guidebook will instinctively see the appeal of an electronic version: Even the most assiduously researched book is out of date by the time it lands in a bookstore, whereas the premise of city guides on the Web is that they're continuously updated and eternally accurate.

Using Denver as a convenient example and my anxiety level as a gauge of success, I set out to find out how helpful such guides really are. My conclusion: Almost anything calling itself a city guide has at least a passing resemblance to the reality on the ground, and is therefore better than nothing. But because of the contortions Web publishers go through to try to make a profit, some of the sites end up guiding you more toward advertisers than toward the things you need to know. One prominently bad example: USA CityLink, which bills itself as a "project" (echoes of the Web's public-service days) but is a shell of a site with little useful information.

I found it helpful to divide the sites into three groups: Those published (and heavily advertised) by new-media titans Microsoft and AOL; the online versions of familiar print series; and noncommercial sites put up by local boosters just because they love their cities and want to share their impressions. Each has its strengths. The hypothetical perfect site would blend the technological prowess of the supertechies, the writing skills of the old-line publishers, and the enthusiasm of the small-time sites.

Wizards of the Web

I started with the Denver editions of Microsoft's Sidewalk and AOL's Digital City series for the same reason my wife yells at me when I bring home any brand of orange juice other than Tropicana: brand is supposed to count for something.

I felt Sidewalk Denver was out mainly to sell me when I saw two categories: "Yellow Pages" and "Buyer's Guide." I was really interested only in the third category, "Entertainment Guide." But I ventured a few clicks into Buyer's Guide just to see what would happen. Microsoft tried to sell me a clothes dryer. I was not pleased.

The Entertainment Guide was just what I was looking for, however: Crisply written restaurant reviews, theater schedules, lodging listings including prices, and just enough gee-wizardry to keep things interesting. I clicked on "today" and found 83 things to do -- there'll be no excuse for being bored in my new hometown. And by clicking the "nearby restaurants" link next to any listing, you can plan an entire afternoon or evening almost instantly. Grades: A for content, C for attitude.

While Sidewalk tried to capture my eyeballs with commerce, Digital City appealed to my nose for news. Its front page has links to local news, weather, and stocks, none of which Sidewalk's home page even hints at. So far so good, but I got some nasty surprises as I clicked further: Some links sent me to Web sites that didn't exist, at least at that moment. And when I tried to get a schedule for a play picked at random -- Picasso at the Lapin Agile -- Digital City's only advice was to phone the theater. Sidewalk, by contrast, had the schedule waiting for me. Grades: C for content, B for attitude.

Old-Line Publishers

Rough Guide, a London-based publisher of budget-conscious guidebooks, has always played catch-up to its Australian spiritual progenitor, Lonely Planet. But on the Web, Rough Guide rules. Though I had no way to verify the claim, Rough Guide says it has posted the full text of 4,000 of its books. Online extras include a fare-finder and ticket-purchaser. They turned up some strange routings but were cheaper than the nonstop flights a travel agent would have put me on.

I'm basically a print guy, so I'm rooting for RG, and its Denver site is respectable. Yet I have to admit that, advanced as these are, Web-wise, for a traditional publisher, Sidewalk trounces them on content. Grades: B- for content, A for attitude.

Another publisher to post its entire Denver title is Insiders' Guides, which boasts that it employs local writers rather than the vagrants who contribute to other guidebook series. Insiders' Guides made less effort than Rough Guide to Webify its material, resulting in amazingly long, text-heavy pages. But that's not necessarily bad. While it would be too hard on the eyes to read the entire book online, fewer screens to click through means easier navigation. Grades: B+ for content, A for attitude

Local Boosters

Probably every city in the world has dozens of locally produced Web guides. Many, being tenuously commercial, fear to say anything critical and end up saying nothing much at all. Vis-a-vis Denver, I found abysmally written sites with names like Denver Online, MileHighCity.com, and Downtown Denver Guide that served no discernible purpose other than to try to sweep up a few advertising crumbs. MileHighCity.com calls itself "The Denver, Colorado On-Line Business & Tourism Guide" but it's so devoid of information that I wouldn't call it a guide to anything, really.

Then you stumble across that rare site that's a labor of both love and talent -- a true insider's guide. Someone named Jeff Karpinski, for example, created what he calls Denver Survival Guide just because he likes Denver and wants to make things easier on relocators like me.

Nice work, Jeff, whoever you are.