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The weather's fine on the Web

Niche sites like the Weather Channel are hot on the Web. The company's site is growing more than 30 percent per month.

Niche Web sites, such as those that offer constant updates on news, weather, or sports, are hot commodities.

One up-and-comer is the Weather Channel. Despite a few rough spots, the company's site has been growing more than 30 percent per month recently, and today it announced that it would add chat as a feature. Beginning next week, the site will allow users to talk with more than 15 national weather anchors, hurricane experts, and storm chasers from the industry's annual weather summit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

To sports nuts, charting meteorological trends may sound dull compared with tracking a favorite team on ESPN, but weather is proving to be a profitable business. Some 10,000 Web sites offer some information about weather. The Weather Channel, one of the biggest sites, is owned by privately held media giant Landmark Communications, which also runs newspapers, television, and radio stations throughout the country.

"Everybody is interested in weather," said marketing manger Elaine Crosby. "That's our product, and the Web is the distribution outlet."

The Web site's heavy users also are prime advertising targets: business people and business travelers. The site also marries the Web with Landmark's similarly titled cable television program, The Weather Channel. That synergy can help draw revenue to both sites, according to analysts.

The Weather Channel site is also one of the Net's fastest-growing niche Web sites, receiving an average 15 million hits per day, and 5,000 to 7,000 page views daily. The company has a list of 37 advertisers who pay an average of $35 and up for every 1,000 people who visit the site. More are being added as the site gets more page turns.

The roster includes AT&T, Chase Bank, Delta Air Lines, Infoseek, and Visa.

The company redesigned its Web site in June. It now offers weather reports for 1,600 cities, compared with only a few hundred during the launch less than two years ago. It also has features that allow users to type in their plane flight to find out whether it is on time. Another service: a gardening report that tells users when to plant their gardenias depending on where they live.

During bad weather spells, features such as "hurricane watches" are added.

That can create some problems, however. During hurricane "Fran" last year, the site became so jammed with users that it slowed down the network. Some complaints resulted, but the company said it responded by adding more servers.