In the seven years I've been writing website reviews for the Online Edition of the Monitor (www.csmonitor.com), the most common question I'm asked is: "How do you decide which sites to review?"
The answer is an easy one: "I don't know. I guess I look for the good ones."
I've submitted more than 300 reviews since 1998, so it might be reasonable to assume that I know what I'm looking for. In truth, all I can really say is that I'm looking for a site that contains some element that holds my interest or sets it apart. Naturally, all this makes it rather difficult to point out any patterns or purpose behind my choices, as this selection of 10 of the best sites from 2005 illustrates:
This site takes the prize for having the biggest impact on the Web this year. A practical tool that's probably used more for entertainment than any genuine need to locate addresses, GoogleMaps created a minor cartographic arms race between developers in 2005. Its capabilities are evolving at such a pace that there's a blog (www.googlemapsmania.blogspot.com) dedicated entirely to that single application.
A recent redesign has made this archeological website spectacular. With interactive maps of every known tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, an interactive and narrated "walk-through" of one of the better-documented tombs, and an interface that manages to keep everything straight, the Theban Mapping Project is probably the most impressive website I've encountered.
Vodafone's website takes an optimistic look - with obvious commercial motives - at future wireless technologies and the roles they might play in daily life. But this project's high-tech mode of exploration and presentation were even more important than its predictions. Future Vision was an engaging example of pushing the Web interface envelope for its own sake.
At the other extreme, Wikipedia's website was chosen strictly on the basis of content. With essays covering everything from "Apollo Moon Landing Hoax Theories" to "Extreme Ironing," to the scientific study of "Navel Lint," Wikipedia doesn't need flashy displays to hold the surfer's attention.
This site was also chosen purely because of content - in this case, the works of a man Scots embrace as The World's Worst Poet. (e.g. "A chicken is a noble beast, The cow is much forlorner; Standing in the pouring rain, With a leg at every corner.")
I can't say I was looking for anything in particular when I found this site for Amsterdam's municipal archive. Viewing tax assessments didn't seem like choice subject matter, but as I explored, the artifacts on display (including letters from Oliver Cromwell and Charlie Chaplin, a 1942 report of the theft of Anne Frank's bicycle, and a 1950s pop hit about Amsterdam's canals) made for a fascinating tour.
This site demonstrates a "made in heaven" marriage between project goals and Web capabilities, as it recounts an attack on the English settlement of Deerfield, Mass., three centuries ago. Using Flash interactives to permit parallel accounts from the perspectives of all five native and European cultures involved in the raid, Deerfield uses the advantages of the Web to show that there can be more than two sides to any story.
Here's an example of the Web offering something you probably never knew you needed: the ability to catalog your books and then store or share your anthology online. More than 1 million books have been cataloged on the site since its launch Aug. 29.
This site uses the Web to spread the word about sustainable architecture. Even its design is soothing as it presents a cabin home so efficient that, in the summer, it generates more power than it uses.
With 3-D tours of Thomas Jefferson's estate, this site offers an extensive survey of a more traditional property. Explorer was as impressive for its ease of navigation as for the quality of its interactive tours.