Web Informant #110, 12 May 1998:
Portal, Schmortal


por-tal, n. A doorway, entrance or gate: especially, one that is large and imposing.

The news over the past few weeks has been filled with this talk about web "portals" and their growing dominance. I had to go to my dictionary before I realized that the term refers to companies such as Yahoo, Lycos and their ilk: back in the old days (say 18 months ago) we used to call them search engines or search sites.

Ah, life was so simple then. You filled out a form to list your site, and it got listed. It didn't take much effort, and there weren't very many of them to worry about.

So much for nostalgia. At last count, there are hundreds of search sites and rising. There are sites such as Rick Johnson's All Known Internet Search Engines. How about Danny Sullivan's Search Engine Watch that are devoted to understanding how these guys work, features that differentiate them and how you can design your site to take best advantage.

Getting listed and listed properly (meaning that whatever your site does, it shows up near the top of the list when users are trying to find it) is now a black art. Many webmasters have been unsuccessful in trying to elevate their pages to the top of particular searches.

They have tried various tricks such as "spamdexing" or filling their pages with often-repeated keywords, putting the keywords in the same color as the background to make them invisible to surfers, and creating special pages that are only seen by the search engine "spiders" as they crawl through their sites.

All of this is really a modern version of the arms race: as soon as one side (the webmasters) develop a new technology to improve their rankings, the other side (the portal guys) figure out a way to neutralize it. As my friend Steve Roberts says, "caveat searchor!" There are consultants that make a good living trying to help increase the visibility of a site on the results pages: I have heard of mixed results. It seems the only guaranteed method of increasing one's ranking is to call up the portal vendor and try to negotiate with a carbon-based life form. Pretty sad, isn't it?

Today, these sites do more than just provide a way to search the net. Yahoo, for example, offers free email accounts, chat boards, classified ads, US-based phone directories, directions and maps. They probably have added more stuff since I last looked at their constellation of services. The others are busy adding stuff to their sites as well. Excite claims less than half of their traffic now is searching, for example.

To me, this means that these places aren't portals: they are destinations. And while they offer plenty of options for visitors, their message is getting harder to figure out. Just as the Mall of America is a destination now for tourists to Minnesota, you may not always go there to buy something but to soak up the culture.

The claim is that because these portal sites attract lots of hits, they have become important kingpins in negotiating web advertising. The assumption here is that hits translates into actual recognition and awareness of the banners displayed on the pages of search results. Clicks equal eyeballs.

This isn't true. In the traditional print magazine and TV worlds, the simplest way to figure this out is to conduct a focus group of readers/viewers and ask them to list the three most memorable ads from a recent issue. Most people remember these, if the advertising is any good. (Or not, as the recent soft porn ads from Network Associates are one example.)

But the web isn't TV or anything like print. And this is especially true of the portal sites: when we go to these sites, we want to get to the little box to type in our query, get our results, and leave. Anything that gets in between is just annoying.

Want some data? I took polls of students in my eCommerce classes (conducted over the past six months at the Interop shows in Singapore, Sydney and Las Vegas). Not ONE person could remember a banner ad seen on any of these portal sites. This says to me that a great deal of this advertising is being wasted, or certainly mispriced.

Portal is the wrong word, even if the definition of being big and imposing does fit. If Yahoo, Excite et al. are going to be destinations on the web, so be it and may the best site win.

Self-promotions dep't

If you want to read more about why I think Yahoo has won the war, check out my previous Web Informant on the topic that I wrote in February.

It has been a while since you have heard from me, and here are a few of the things I have been doing. My favorable review of Lotus' Domino Merchant eCommerce software appeared in last week's Infoworld.

It was good to see many of you last week in Vegas at Interop. In addition to my two-day tutorial on eCommerce taught with Stephanie Denny, I also did an evening special session entitled "Microsoft Wins Everything." If you are interested in having me present a similar talk at your own event such as a national sales meeting, please let me know. The session was very well received and got lots of laughs as I took a look back in our industry to Microsoft's beginnings.

David Strom
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