Katherine Boehret

A How-to Guide to How-to Videos

If there’s a skill or process you want to learn or know more about, chances are there’s an online video for it. These days you can find a video that will teach you to cook, survive college, build your own headphones or even become a better kisser.

This week, I took a look at just a few Web sites that make finding these videos easy, including Howcast Media Inc.’s Howcast.com, WonderHowTo.com from WonderHowTo Inc. and eHow Inc.’s eHow.com. Howcast.com, which launched in February, encourages users to make and share good-quality, entertaining videos by providing tools on its site, and has about 5,000 videos so far. WonderHowTo.com, launched in January, used a different strategy by aggregating over 110,000 videos from various sources — including Howcast, YouTube and Scripps Networks (SSP) — rather than publishing its own content. EHow, a site that started in 1999 with text-only content, contains over 100,000 instructional articles submitted by its users or eHow editors, and has a small catalog of videos.

Howcast videos can be seen in full-screen mode using a player that illustrates step-by-step text instructions beside video screens.

After testing each of these sites, I found that my favorite how-to videos had steps that were clearly labeled and numbered and the ability to fast forward to or play back specific parts in the video — tools that Howcast included in almost all of its videos. At least some of the videos on the three sites simply illustrate things you could likely figure out how to do without watching a video, such as “How to Make Green Beer.” (Add food coloring.) Howcast.com and WonderHowTo both require users to sign in, which confirms their date of birth, before looking at what they consider “mature” content.

These three free sites are advertisement-supported, and Howcast’s ads run alongside videos. WonderHowTo.com runs ads at the top and side of its own site, on which it will play certain videos. But because videos on WonderHowTo come from other sources, those other sites can show video-embedded ads according to their rules. EHow’s videos run pop-up text advertisements displaying names and links of other related (and sometimes unrelated) Web sites. But I couldn’t get the pop-up ads to stay closed.

Overall, I preferred the look of Howcast’s site and its well-organized videos. But its content paled in comparison to WonderHowTo’s 110,000 videos and even eHow’s 100,000 instructional articles. WonderHowTo.com does a nice job of gathering content from across the Web, though the inconsistencies of other sites (including advertisements, layout and video player) were a bit frustrating. EHow’s articles were useful, as were its few videos, but I couldn’t get over the site’s unyielding video pop-up ads.

Howcast.com’s content was informative with an amusing edge, including a video titled “How to Tell If Your Boyfriend’s A Psycho.” (If he calls 50 times a day, for example.) Other videos on the site are more serious, like “How to Make Sushi” by an executive sushi chef in New York City.

The founders of Howcast Media formerly worked in Google’s (GOOG) video department, including during the acquisition of YouTube. All of Howcast’s content comes from one of four sources: written and produced by Howcast in its studios; emerging filmmakers who apply and are accepted into the Howcast Directors Program to receive $50 a video and 50% of the advertising revenue generated from videos that generate over 40,000 views on the site; content partners like Popular Science; and Howcast users’ personal how-to videos.

In order to make it easier for average users to upload better-looking videos, Howcast provides an Upload and Enhance tool that simply and quickly adds professional-looking graphics and printable steps to go along with how-to videos. This formula makes videos more enjoyable to watch.

Videos made in the Howcast Studios include accompanying music, good narratives and actors who add humor to an otherwise humdrum how-to. Among its helpful features is a video player that has smart blue markers to show where facts are sprinkled throughout the video and green markers to illustrate where tips appear. For example, the fact at the end of a video for beginner guitarists called “How to Play a Basic Bar Chord” is “The late Kurt Cobain claimed he was trying to rip off the Pixies when he wrote ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit. ‘” In full-screen view, users can zoom in on any part of a video, and written-out steps and thumbnail stills of the scene appear to the right of the screen.

Howcast tries to run ads alongside videos that relate to the content. A video titled “How To Clean Your Dog’s Teeth” has an ad for PetSmart (PETM) Stores running on its page.

WonderHowTo.com was developed by a former television executive with the intention of using the site to produce its own video, like Howcast.com. Instead, WonderHowTo.com opted to tap the vast selection of how-to videos already available on the Web.

A Browse button pulls down 35 categories from which users can sort content, including Spirituality, Dating & Relationships and Fitness. In the Fashion subcategory under Beauty & Style, I found 290 videos including one on “How to Tie a Windsor Knot” and another titled “How to Turn Old Underpants Into a Bra” — neither of which I’ll be using anytime soon. Other categories include Clip of the Day, Recommendations (for users who are logged in) and Fresh, where new videos are listed. Users can grade videos to help others tell which they think are the best, and a Top Grade category compiles the top-ranked videos.

WonderHowTo’s content comes from over 700 sites, according to the company. I used the site to find a video on YouTube about how to do a front-flip, clips on VideoJug.com that provided terrific tennis tips from a coach, and a video from EasyBarTricks.com about how to stick a beer bottle to a wall without glue or gum. (Hint: You’ll need a corner and a wall you don’t mind marking up.) WonderHowTo made it easier to find these videos than by performing a general search on the Web.

I submitted a non-how-to video to this site by simply entering a URL, without logging in. I never found the video I submitted on the site; WonderHowTo explained that it screens all videos prior to posting them, so it must have found my video.

EHow.com uses its database of articles to encourage people to watch videos, when they’re relevant. This site uses calm, pastel colors to give a relaxed feeling — especially compared with WonderHowTo, where banner ads surround the page. EHow’s 26 categories include Parenting, Parties & Entertaining and Weddings. Twelve subcategories within Weddings led to 23 articles about Bridal Party Responsibilities — a popular topic was “How To Deal With a Bridezilla.” Related videos, such as “How To Get Rid of Wedding Day Jitters,” ran along the right of the page.

Videos can also be found on eHow within a marked tab at the top of the page. But unlike the articles on eHow, these videos weren’t well organized or as easily searchable. I watched one of eHow’s Featured Videos called “How to Know if Your Toe Is Broken,” but after closing a pop-up ad for UPS (UPS) during Step One of the video, another ad popped up during Step Five. Neither ad had anything to do with broken toes.

But the eHow videos were professional-looking and included quite a few tips that I didn’t know. That broken toe video was submitted by the eHow Health Editor, and a link at the top of the page led me to hundreds of other health-related articles. I found another video on “How To Remove Wallpaper,” which was posted by the Home & Garden Editor and included a list of things I would need to proceed, along with numbered steps.

It isn’t always easy to learn from the information you find online, and how-to videos can be a big help — especially when they’re well-made and easy to find using one of these sites. Howcast.com has well-presented content that was enjoyable to watch, but WonderHowTo.com offers a better variety of instructional videos.

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