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New year marked with redesign fever

A flurry of site overhauls have hit the Web like New Year's Eve confetti as companies streamline and spruce up their Web sites.

News and information sites appear to be cleaning up their act for the new year.

A flurry of site overhauls have hit the Web like New Year's Eve confetti as companies ranging from software giants to news organizations have streamlined and spruced up their Web sites.

"We were shooting to have our new look by the first of the year," said Gail Griffin, managing editor at TheStreet.com, a financial news site that launched its second redesign on Sunday. "We added sections for technology and international news, and completely overhauled the home page so we can prioritize stories based on importance. The previous site was a stack of stories entirely ordered by chronology."

TheStreet.com also changed its graphics in an attempt to speed downloads--a common New Year's resolution among Webmasters.

"We redesigned the site so that pages load twice as fast," said Michelle Bergman, spokesperson for ABCNews.com, a content partner of CNET News.com. ABCNews.com also made navigational and design changes with its pre-New Year's redesign, changing its blue screen to white, moving its navigation bar from the right side to the left, and putting headlines from all its news sections on the front page.

Another newly redesigned site focusing on speed and performance is Microsoft.com.

"The whole site is done in DHTML [dynamic HTML] or HTML, so everything can be cached," said Tim Sinclair, general manager for Microsoft.com. "With DHTML, we were able to do things to the browser cache so it doesn't have to go to the server. That makes things a lot faster."

Microsoft also exchanged the graphics on its toolbar for text. In addition to slimming down the page, the text-only buttons will ease site upgrades in its 28 distinct language versions.

The Redmond, Washington-based software giant made these and other cosmetic changes to its site in response to focus groups conducted around the country. The site features accounts of the redesign process.

Other Microsoft Web properties, including local guide Sidewalk and sites that fall under the MSN header, were redesigned earlier in 1998.

Another site greeting the new year with a face lift is CompuServe.com. That redesign, launched last month, is an attempt by the America Online-owned online service to compete on the Web with portal sites like Yahoo, Netcenter, and even AOL's own Web portal, AOL.com.

For one subscription-only site, the season of sharing brought a more generous approach with proprietary content.

"One of things we wanted to try to do was to bring nonsubscribers more of the information we publish for free," said Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition editor Neil Budde. The Journal used to bring paid subscribers to its main news page while rerouting nonsubscribers to a marketing page urging them to subscribe.

"We had people coming to the WSJ.com home page who were not yet subscribers and who were clearly looking for something from the Journal," Budde said. "We wanted to take better advantage of that. We publish a little bit of news and information outside of our subscription area on channels like PointCast or MSNBC, and we never really highlighted that information on our own site until now."

The Journal also has a new look-and-feel for the new year, with a smaller font and more information on its front page. Previously, the front page had three headlines prominently displayed, but did not have the search box, market chart, or stock quotes that now appear. The smaller font has helped the Journal get more information to visitors up-front, Budde said, but some readers have looked askance at that particular change.

Some Webmasters ascribed the end-of-year renovation craze to coincidence, but others saw it as natural way to ring in 1999.

"It's always a nice time to launch things and get a fresh look," said Microsoft.com's Sinclair. "Everyone is in the mood for change and new things."