'Look it up' on screen

The Baltimore Sun

Terri Rossman considers herself a visual learner. So when the 52-year-old marketing professional wanted to learn a new knitting stitch, she turned to the Web.

"I searched for 'knit bobble stitch' on Google and I found a video of someone doing it," said Rossman, who lives in the Detroit area. "It was perfect for me."

The Web has become the place where people go to learn new tricks. Traffic to sites like eHow.com and WikiHow.com have doubled over the past year, according to figures from ComScore Networks, while startups such as Howcast.com and Findhow.com, a search engine to find "how-to" content, are entering the field.

Want to learn how to count cards at a blackjack table? Go to eHow. Interested in dating a flight attendant? Howcast has a video with some advice. Want to create the cat-eye look favored by singer Amy Winehouse? Several videos on YouTube can help.

"I saw with Google and then YouTube that people are really searching for this stuff," said Jason Liebman, co-founder and chief executive of Howcast, which has been in development for a year and recently opened for visitors. "But no one was showing you how to flirt with a girl or swaddle a baby."

Liebman, who worked at Google Video and then YouTube, has raised $9 million in funding for Howcast. The site produces its own videos and also pays people to create videos. Like other sites of its kind, it plans to generate revenue through targeted advertising.

The variety and quality of how-to content can vary across the Web. Howcast offers only videos, while WikiHow, a site where anyone can contribute, largely offers text-based guides. At eHow, which encourages community through its social networking tools, the content is a mix of professionally produced material and user-created items.

Consider the simple kiss to distinguish the approaches.

The most popular item at wikiHow is how to French kiss, with nearly 2 million views. "Kisses are like snowflakes: No two are exactly the same," the entry states. "Once you finally feel comfortable French kissing someone, it is tempting to try to do the same thing every time. Add variety."

At eHow, the "How to initiate a first kiss" tutorial offers seven steps and said users need only one thing: a breath mint. Readers approved of the technique, giving it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

And at Howcast, there's a not-always-tongue-in-cheek video titled "How to kiss someone with braces." (Tip: Use dental wax to smooth out the rough spots.) The short video uses a voiceover that features a teenager with a lisp, as if he were wearing braces. "All our videos have voiceovers," Liebman said. "That's a branding element for us." Adertisers include JetBlue Airways Corp. and PetSmart Inc.

As a strategy, it is wise to come up with a unique approach, said Bobby Tulsiani, an analyst with Jupiter Research, which is monitoring how-to sites.

"YouTube dominates all video sites, getting at least about 50 percent of the traffic," Tulsiani said. "They are the entrenched leader, so you need to try to do something else."

Among YouTube's many offerings are special channels that are sponsored. One is from the Ford modeling agency, which features tips on fashion and makeup.

Tulsiani called how-to sites a niche, but one that's broad and deep.

"It should be easy to monetize," he said, because operators can offer highly targeted videos that can be paired with advertising. "If I have a video on how to open a 401(k) account, I can probably get a financial institution to advertise around it."

This month, Ted Ives launched his new site, Findhow.com. It's a search engine for how-to content that categorizes a wide range of content from various sites across the Web. The site will include advertising, but search results will clearly distinguish the ads, Ives said.

If you want to learn how to change a dimmer switch, Findhow offers eight results, including video and text-based content from HomeDepot.com.

"We have 14,000 how-to topics" indexed, said Ives, a software developer who has worked for Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

Findhow is self-funded, having raised about $300,000, but Ives said he has been talking to bigger investors.

"Right now, we just want to get it out the door to see what it's worth," he said.

For Justin Seeley, 25, the growth of how-to video has been worth a lot. Seeley creates instructional videos for people who want to use Adobe's Photoshop software. It is now a full-time job for Seeley, who worked his way through college as a graphic designer.

"On the Web, I put up 3- to 5-minute how-to's, such as the best way to convert a photo to black and white," he said. "But my instructional DVDs are much longer."

His Web work led to a series of contracts with a publisher of instructional videos. Courses can be as long as 8 hours and feature 10 chapters, he said.

He plugs the instructional DVDs at the end of his free tutorials, which can be seen at Howcast. The videos are selling so well that his contracts have become more lucrative, and he's looking to expand.

"I'm working on an online course for educators on how to become a better teacher using Web video tools," he said.

Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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