The next Internet gold rush

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Are you wikiliterate? If not, start studying!

For one thing, "wikiality," a Stephen Colbert-inspired "word of the year," is a password that signals you are an irony insider. But beyond that, the wiki website model, popularized by Wikipedia, is also emerging as a hot business tool.

The New Yorker recently ran a long story on Wikipedia and its origins (you can skip the encyclopedic passage on the history of the Encyclopedia Britannica and still get the point), a tale that has captured the attention of Web innovators for a while. Here's why: With a full-time staff of just five, Wikipedia has become the 17th-most-popular site on the Internet, with more than 1.3 million English-language entries. Thousand of links in the "free encyclopedia" to other Wikipedia pages compound the site's traffic. And the people who provide all that information are ordinary users who don't get paid a dime.

That's the wiki model: Anybody with a computer and nothing better to do can post or edit content. Wikipedia doesn't accept advertising, but that doesn't mean that copycats can't. So let's see: minimal overhead, free labor, and ad dollars that will rise with page views. Where do I invest?

Actually, get in line. There are already wikis for job postings, patent applications, and dozens of other things. And a fast-growing E-commerce company called Internet Brands, based in sSouthern California, is rolling out wikis for cars and travel, with as-yet-unrevealed plans to tackle real estate in a similar way. Internet Brands is still a little-known company, but it caught my attention because it's been snapping up other Web sites as aggressively as big portals like Yahoo! and MSN used to do.

Internet Brands began life in 1998 as Carsdirect.com, the car-shopping site. The privately owned company changed its name in 2005 and since then has acquired nearly a dozen websites specializing in big purchases like homes, mortgages, and travel. Two of its sites, wikitravel.org and wikicars.org, rely heavily on information supplied not by experts in the field but by ordinary users.

Earlier this month, I interviewed Internet Brands CEO Bob Brisco, to see what I could learn about wikis and other fresh ways to cash in on the Web. Here are some insights, for all you webpreneurs out there:

Wikis rock. When I asked Brisco what websites he pays most attention to — other than his own – Wikipedia was the first one he mentioned. Wikis are a powerful tool because the community of users helps provide a lot of pretty good content very quickly. Consumers value that and don't care that much if there are some mistakes or inaccuracies.

Web users are getting picky. Brisco's wikis contain ads, but they're more subtle than what most of us are used to. That's because people who participate in community sites have an anti-commercial bent. "You've got to run a lot of small ads. No pop-ups, no banners. Less intrusive traffic resonates with consumers," Brisco says. That is a refreshing antidote to audio and video ads on many sites that only seem to get more invasive.

There's not enough information on the Web. Hard to believe, maybe, but consumers often have a hard time finding what they're looking for. You'd think there's would be loads of travel info on the Web, for instance, but "vacation planning is a very fragmented experience," Brisco says. Most people visit four to six different websites before arranging a trip. Brisco wants to give them everything they need, including air, hotel, and car-rental reservations, in one place. And most of the research info, of course, will be supplied by users, for free.

Web shopping can get a whole lot better. The process of making a purchase is pretty seamless, without a lot of need for improvement; Amazon has that figured out. But there's a huge shortage of meani ngful information on products and services that are complex and expensive. Hybrid cars are an example. Internet Brands purchased greenhybrid.com recently because it provides real-world gas-mileage data and other unbiased information that's hard to find anyplace else. Marry that up with the ability to buy the product, right there — through a link to carsdirect.com, in this case — and you've got an innovation that will attract consumers, and advertisers.

Web users want help solving problems. Sure, they need to check on the latest Britney Spears news several times a day, but what they want most is a simpler life. "When you solve people's problems, the rewards will be great," Brisco proclaims. Among those rewards: gobs of traffic and the ensuing ad dollars.

You make money where the money is. Internet Brands' model is to capture consumers when they are close to making a decision to spend a lot of money on a trip, a car, or a home. That's when advertisers want to reach them most dearly and are willing to spend the most. The model seems to be working. Brisco says Internet Brands is handsomely profitable and has been financing its recent acquisitions mostly through its own revenues. Does that mean there's a lavish IPO in the company's future? Brisco won't say, and the company's website doesn't offer any clues either. See, it's true—there's not enough meaningful information on the Web.

--Rick Newman