Magazine article Online

Portal Wars

Magazine article Online

Portal Wars

Article excerpt

Web Portals. You've undoubtedly heard this phrase, and may be grumbling about having to get up to speed on yet another Web craze. But relax, you're already on top of this one. Web portals are old wine in new bottles. Web denizens regularly get overheated about their latest "discovery," of something that has been around in the online world for years (remember push technology?), or in the case of the portal, for decades. Portals do for the Web what America Online and CompuServe have done for consumer online since the '80s, what Dialog has done for professional online since the '70s, and if you want to go way back, what library science has done since the '70s--the 1870s, that is (remember the "gathering function" from your Cataloging 101 class?).

In fact, you're likely to be a portal user already, and you may not even know it. If you've searched HotBot or AltaVista recently (surely you've noticed how they've changed) you're using portal wannabes. If you use Yahoo!, Excite, Lycos, or Infoseek, you're in the portal mainstream. Indeed, if you use any two or more of these, you've undoubtedly noticed how much they all look alike: they're all portals. A portal is a nothing more than supermarket service on the Web, a set of commonly-used sites and services, linked from a single page. No more aimless surfing; you click on your portal initially and repeatedly in your Web sessions because it has everything you need.

WHAT'S A PORTAL?

Portals look so much alike because experience has shown that there is a common set of features that consumers want. Portals are repeating the history of the proprietary consumer online services, which by their zenith in the mid-'90s were hardly distinguishable. The pressure for Web portals to copy one another is even greater than in proprietary online because it is so much easier, on the Web for consumers to flip from one to another. Portals provide three types of features--research, transactional, and communications--just as the old consumer services did. In fact, the roster of services on a full-featured portal is a drop-dead copy of what America Online and CompuServe have had for at least a decade. The portals' only serious innovation is the ability of a customer to personalize the site in a variety of ways.

WHY NOW?

Portals have been around since the Web's early days, but it's only this year that all the fuss is being made over them. The reason--no surprise--is money. Portals are perceived as a way for portal providers to make money by selling advertising, and for the advertisers to make money from the people who see the ads. These perceptions arise from the numbers of people now on the Web. It has passed the great divide from a toy for techies to a genuine mass medium: 70 million people click on Yahoo! each month. These numbers have caused the outlandish stock valuations for Yahoo! and others, and provoked portal interest on the part of giant corporations, such as NBC, Disney, and Microsoft. According to Web tracker Jupiter Communications, Web advertising revenues will rise from $940 million in 1997 to nearly $8 billion in 2002.

An intense race is on to establish portal leadership, among as many as a dozen contenders. Not only are the stakes high, but the window will not be open long. Industry commentators have predicted a shakeout in a few years that will leave only four or five portals standing. So if you wonder why Yahoo! or Excite or AltaVista look different each time you click in, it's because they are all fighting for their lives.

RESEARCH

A portal has a Web directory (a classified set of links), a keyword search engine, and links to common reference tools, such as mapping and phone page sites. Yahoo! pioneered the directory concept and still has the largest and most comprehensive directory. Newer portals tend to have classifications that concentrate on high-interest consumer topics: news, personal finance, sports, travel, entertainment, recreation, and leisure interests. …

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