While growth is slowing at most top Internet sites, it is skyrocketing at sites focused on social networking, blogging and local information.
The dramatic success of those Internet categories is apparent from a recent online-traffic analysis provided by market research firm ComScore Media Metrix, which examined visitor growth rates among the 50 top Web sites over the past year.
Top-ranked sites growing the most, ComScore's data showed, were Blogger.com, a personal publishing site; MySpace.com, where young people do virtual preening and share musical tastes; Wikipedia, an open reference site jointly edited by millions of people; and Citysearch, a network of local guides focused on cities.
The number of monthly visitors to each site rose at rates ranging from 185 percent (Citysearch) to 528 percent (Blogger.com) between February 2005 and February 2006. Their growth far exceeded the 4 percent increase in overall Internet visitors in the United States during that period.
The traffic analysis shows the Internet is still a space where new brands such as MySpace can suddenly break into the upper ranks, where older brands such as Citysearch can revive themselves after languishing for years, and where established outfits such as Google often wind up as beneficiaries because they buy or copy services pioneered by upstarts.
Google Inc., for instance, bought Blogger.com in 2003; the number of people posting or reading material at that site jumped to 15.6 million last month from 2.5 million a year ago.
"The growth in blogging reminds us the Internet is fulfilling its original promise about participation," said Gary Arlen, a research analyst and president of Arlen Communications Inc. "This medium empowers users in such a way that they can do what they want and be heard."
Peter Daboll, president and chief executive of ComScore Media Metrix, said one notable recent traffic trend is increased popularity of sites helping people find local information: "Things having to do with local search are really gaining momentum."
In addition to Citysearch, a network devoted to local entertainment and commerce, Daboll said, two local directories made the Web's top 50 last month, WhitePages.com and Verizon's Superpages.com.
Citysearch, which is owned by IAC/InterActive Corp., recently announced its first full year of profitability, thanks to its increase in ad sales. And the Kelsey Group, a Princeton, N.J., consulting firm specializing in local advertising, projects that ads relating to locally focused Internet searches will become a $6.1 billion market within five years.
Greg Sterling, an independent analyst, said local Internet services lagged behind their national counterparts for years but are finally coming on strong because they are much better today and people are more aware of their utility. "This is stuff people need and want in their everyday lives," Sterling said, "and to the extent they can find it online, they are starting to use these tools."
ComScore usually lumps together sites owned by the same firm in its Internet traffic reports, so AOL's visitors, for example, would be merged with those of other sites owned by Time Warner Inc. But The Washington Post asked ComScore to break out traffic for the Web's top 50 individual sites to get an idea of which were gaining and losing momentum.
Big brands have staying power
The analysis showed that the Internet's biggest brands have plenty of staying power or at least are keeping pace with growth in the overall online population. Yahoo retains the largest audience in the United States, though its visitor growth slowed to about 5 percent last year.
Google was the only mega-site bucking the trend, with its users shooting up 21 percent in the past year. Not only has Google steadily expanded its share of the market for Web search, ComScore found, but it also has been attracting new users by expanding into other services offered by rivals, such as e-mail, mapping and personal publishing. If you combine traffic to all the properties it owns, including Blogger.com, Google's total audience jumped 27 percent last year, ComScore found.
The total audience for all of Time Warner's Internet properties, including AOL's various online services, showed little or no growth. Neither did the total audience for Microsoft Corp.'s collective Internet services, though some discrete services did well.
AOL's Mapquest.com, for example, pulled 7 percent more visitors in February this year compared with last.
One of the more dramatic growth stories was MySpace, which pulled 37 million visitors last month, 28 million more than a year ago. That gave it a ranking of No. 10 among all sites in the United States, according to ComScore.
Usage data for MySpace suggests an even higher popularity ranking: Based on total pages viewed and the time spent by each visitor, MySpace ranked No. 2 on the entire Internet, right behind Yahoo.
After Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought MySpace for $580 million last summer, the site made headlines when some men were arrested and charged with assaulting girls they had identified on the site. Since then, News Corp. has been working feverishly to improve safety on MySpace by screening photos for pornography and removing profiles of underage users.
Joining MySpace on the fast track was Wikipedia, the open encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Its traffic soared 275 percent last year following widespread media play over the posting of fake biographical material and similar controversies regarding the site's accuracy.
For a chart showing all top 50 Web sites and their number of visitors last month, go online to http://washingtonpost.com/technology.