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AOL joins women's site trend

America Online's Greenhouse is the latest company to launch a site directed at the up-and-coming Web audience of women.

If anyone doubts that the gender gap on the Net is closing, and closing fast, they need only take a quick surf. Just a year ago, women who wanted to find information aimed directly at their own interests had slim pickings.

But these days there are many sites from which to choose and new ones are popping up regularly. Today, America Online's Greenhouse Networks officially launched another women's site, Electra.

"As the leading original content developer for the interactive medium, our strategy is to build the most dynamic communities in the online/Internet space--communities that feature an unbeatable combination of content, community, personality, and functionality," said Ted Leonsis, president and chief executive of AOL Studios, in a statement. "We have brought these qualities together once again in Electra, a site that is elevating the women's category to a new level."

But the site, already live on AOL's proprietary service, does not represent a new phenomenon. Related story: AOL announcement pending Rather, it is another indication that the market for female-oriented content online is growing. In fact, it is similar to other women's sites such as iVillage and veteran player Women's Wire.

Electra is organized along channels such as career, money, mind & body, relationships, style and time off, my town, and shopping, and includes such extras as celebrities and job listings.

The site also features other interactive content such as pen pals, online message boards, chat rooms, and advice.

Electra clearly is meant to be a one-stop resource center for women, regardless of whether they want to shop, make friends, get a job, or--yes--exchange recipes.

Sites catering to women and girls have gone from a cottage industry to a full-fledged business filled with plenty of competition. But women, as any supermarket check-out stand chock full of women's magazines will demonstrate, are a desirable target for advertisers.

But online sites have to offer more than most print magazines. Magazines can target their content to a specific market cross section, such as women who work, mothers, or those interested in high fashion. Online services, on the other hand, have to be broad enough to lure women with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds.

Women's Wire, for instance, continues to branch out into different sites, such as Healthy Ideas and Beatrice's Web Guide.

In the end, of course, for commercial sites, it's all about gaining traffic and selling ads.

The very fact that Greenhouse, the branch of AOL that cultivates new online businesses, saw fit to pour big resources into the Electra project clearly demonstrates just how lucrative the market promises to be.

Jupiter Communications, for instance, estimates that 34 million women will be on the Net by the year 2000, accounting for more than 46 percent of the total online population.

And AOL cites a study by the Simmons Market Research company showing that women online represent an attractive demographic to advertisers and businesses. For example, of the women age 25 to 34 who are online, more than 26 percent have attended graduate school, 85 percent are employed, and 62 percent are members of households with incomes of more than $50,000, AOL said.

"Women are one of the most sophisticated, fastest-growing segments in the online world today," Leonsis said.

Greenhouse launched the site with advertisers and commerce partners such as American Greetings; Avon; Columbia House; CUC International; Disney.com; Fashionmall.com; Fragrance Counter; FreeShop International, Inc.; Godiva Chocolatier; Internet Liquidators; Ralph Lauren Fragrances; Sports Superstore Online; Health & Vitamin Express; Thane International; and Visa.