Heather Armstrong's wickedly funny blog about motherhood, Dooce, is more than just an outlet for the creativity and frustrations of a modern mom. The site, chock full of advertising, is a money machine, so much so that Armstrong and her husband have quit their regular jobs.
J.C. Penney and Crate & Barrel, the U.S. retailers, hawk their furniture and offer decorating tips alongside notes of Armstrong's talks with her 4-year-old daughter, Leta. Walgreens touts its photo-printing services next to pictures of her dog. Starwood's W Hotel chain brags about its Internet-friendly rooms on the Dooce home page.
All of these advertisers are eager to influence the 850,000 readers, mostly women, who avidly follow Armstrong's adventures. Although Armstrong won't disclose exact numbers, Dooce's revenue this year is on track to be seven times what it was in 2006, according to Federated Media, which sells ads for the blog.
"Advertisers want more inventory than we can give them," said Chas Edwards, chief revenue officer and publisher of Federated.
Dooce is hardly alone. Sites aimed primarily at women, from "mommy blogs" to makeup and fashion sites, grew 35 percent last year, faster than every other category on the Web except politics, according to comScore, an Internet traffic measurement firm. Women's sites had 85 million visitors in May, 42 percent more than the same month last year, comScore said.
Advertisers are following the crowd. They showed 4.4 billion display ads on women's Web sites in May, more than on sites for kids, teens, and families.
"Moms are the decision-makers of the household as far as purchases are concerned," said Chris Actis, vice president and digital director at MediaVest, an ad agency.
The rapid growth in advertising and traffic to women's sites has also attracted attention from major media companies and venture capitalists, which are rushing into the sector.
Last week, the cable giant Comcast bought the shopping and entertainment site DailyCandy for about $125 million.
Comcast's other Web properties, Fandango, Fancast and Comcast.net, also have a primarily female audience, and Comcast said it planned to share content across sites. In July, Peacock Equity, a venture partnership of NBC Universal and General Electric, and Venrock, a venture capital firm, invested $5 million in BlogHer, a network of 2,200 blogs by and for women.
In March, Yahoo created Shine, a site that publishes original content, blog posts from readers and articles from publishers Hearst, Condé Nast and Rodale about sex, health, fashion, beauty and parenting. Also in March, Turner Media Ventures, part of Time Warner, started The Frisky, a racy site about love, sex and pop culture.
Glam Media, a network of 650 women's sites, has raised $114 million from several venture firms and investors including Accel and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Sugar, which publishes a group of 17 blogs anchored by popular celebrity gossip site PopSugar, is backed by NBC Universal and Sequoia Capital, an early investor in Google.
"Women are more than half the population and they do most of the shopping," said Tim Draper, founder and managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson. "We are constantly looking for more sites that cater to women."
In addition to Glam, the firm has invested in CafeMom, MyShape and NearbyNow, all sites with a female audience.
Other newcomers include SmartNow for women over 35, started with money from angel investors; and Jezebel, a site from Gawker Media that features vitriolic posts about traditional women's magazines. And wowOwow, for women over 40, which was seeded with $1 million from its co-founders.
Although men are heavy users of the Web, they do not visit gender-oriented sites the way women do, at least not explicitly gender-oriented sites. AOL's Living channel for women had 16.1 million unique visitors in June, while its Asylum site, a top men's destination online, had only 3.3 million. ComScore does not even track men's sites as a category.
Joni Evans, the literary agent who has found a second career as chief executive of wowOwow, said the gender disparity comes from the fact that women thrive on sharing anecdotes.
"Women love to reach out and talk; it's just the nature of women," and the Web is perfectly suited to that, she said.
Advertisers are betting that the trust and intimacy that comes from conversing about sex after motherhood or reading about a blogger's battle with postpartum depression will translate into sales of products discussed on a site.
Some are also working with women's sites to create sponsored content in a collaboration that would stun some traditional print editors. At CafeMom, for instance, Wal-Mart Stores offered bloggers gift certificates for Wal-Mart's green products in exchange for writing about what they bought.
For another Wal-Mart campaign, Glam, which touts its "custom content creation" to advertisers, wrote a quiz, "What's Your Steak Style?" to help a reader determine whether her "palate personality" is casual, healthy, decadent or gourmet. Each page featured an ad for Wal-Mart's new steak line-up. Glam also published features with headlines like "Barbecue on a Budget" that looked just like articles but sent readers to Wal-Mart steak ads if they clicked on them.
Other advertisers are taking a less direct approach. When J.C. Penney wanted to tell mothers about its Chris Madden bedding and furniture collection last fall, Federated Media built a new Web site called Fall Shopping Guide, sponsored by the retailer, that placed ads for the new designs around content about home decorating borrowed from 10 parenting bloggers in Federated's advertising network.
Ree Drummond, author of the popular blog Confessions of a Pioneer Woman, was remodeling her bathroom that month, and her posts about the remodel appeared on the new site. Even though she did not mention Penney, some commenters connected the ads with the blog anyway - an advertiser's dream. "Love you pioneer woman!" wrote one commenter. "I also heart JCPenneys." J.C. Penney liked the results enough that it just started a new campaign with Federated for its Linden Street line. Armstrong of Dooce, Pioneer Woman and others are writing blog posts about home decor for the site.
Of course, the notion of building a Web business around attracting women is not new. A decade ago, iVillage, Women.com and a number of other sites thought that the women's market would be their ticket to riches. Instead, the sites struggled to find an audience - and advertiser support.
One reason was that brands that market to men, like car and technology companies, were more comfortable advertising online earlier, said Edwards of Federated Media. Brands that market to women are now catching up.
But, to the disappointment of some women who want to focus on serious issues like politics, advertisers are not interested in all kinds of women's content. They gravitate to the tried-and-true topics of women's magazines: fashion, beauty, celebrities and love life. That is also where the heaviest Web traffic is.
"Time and time again, women are happy to see their relationship with their food, their clothes and their relationships externally manifested in entertainment and how-to content," said Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal's women and lifestyle entertainment networks.
Yahoo's Shine initially vowed to cover current events and avoid the typical women's magazine fare of sex and diet tips. The most popular stories on a recent day, though, were about racy photos of the teenage star Miley Cyrus and whether women are attracted to men with beards. Brandon Holley, Shine's editor in chief, said she had been surprised by the popularity of stories on celebrities. "We tried pure news, and sometimes it doesn't work," she said.
Holley was most recently editor in chief at Jane, the Condé Nast women's magazine that closed down in July 2007. Jane struggled with the same problem - how to offer an irreverent, feminist take on women's topics, and ultimately failed to attract advertisers.
Armstrong of Dooce said readers come to her because she is more honest than glossy women's magazines. "It's really raw and unfiltered, not run through a committee of 12 people who need to approve what you say," she said.
That does not always go over well with advertisers. When Armstrong used a lewd phrase in the subtitle of her blog, two family entertainment companies pulled their ads off her site.
"I thought that was awesome," Armstrong said. "I knew an advertiser would pull out, but I think advertisers are beginning to understand that people come to my Web site because I do that - the reason I have eyeballs is because of my irreverence."