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Traffick Logo Article provided with permission by
Traffick - The Guide to Portals.
© 2000 Traffick.com.


Frequently Asked Questions About Portals
By Cory Kleinschmidt and Andrew Goodman - 2000 Traffick.com

1. What is a web portal?
2. What came before portals?
3. How did web portals get started?
4. How do Web browsers fit in?
5. How does Internet access fit in?

6. What features do consumer web portals have?
7. Where can I find statistics about the leading portals?
8. Why are so many of the portals' offerings free?
9. What is Traffick?
10. What led you to start this site?
11. I don't use a portal. Aren't they going the way of the dodo?
12. Aren't there several types of portal? Which is which?
13. What is a vertical portal, or vortal?
14. What about Enterprise Resource Portals or corporate portals?
15. What are B2B portals?
16. Where can I go for more information?

What is a web portal?

Portals are often the first page your web browser loads when you start up your web browser, Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, etc.

The term "web portal" began to be used to describe mega-sites such as Yahoo, Excite, MSN, Netscape Netcenter and AOL because many users used them as a "starting point" or "entry point" for their web surfing. The term "search engine" had become inadequate to describe the breadth of the offerings of these leading Internet destinations, although search and navigation are still pivotal to most people's online experience. (AOL is a bit different: it's always been an Internet access provider in addition to being a network of proprietary Internet content and services.)

The major consumer web portals are still the most heavily-visited sites on the Internet. Yahoo, AOL and MSN are the giants but the next seven or eight after that are significant as well. All command stock valuations in the billions. AOL Time Warner is worth several hundred billion dollars.

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What came before portals?

Circa 1989, Tim Berners-Lee developed a vision for the World Wide Web as a globally-accessible network of documents written in hypertext or HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). Given the difficulty of sharing networked information, this was proposed as an easier way to structure, lay out, and navigate documents using a common format. It was designed so that layouts would be more or less consistent from most any networked computer with any type of display. Before the web, there were no Internet "links" as we conceive of them today. The HTML specification has gone through several transformations. It's part of a family of "markup languages" known as SGML. HTML may eventually give way to XML (eXtensible Markup Language). There are many other languages and complex programming issues that have arisen as more tasks and functions are being performed entirely online. HTML was originally meant for structuring text documents. People are now watching streaming video and doing their banking online. We've obviously come a long way in a short period of time.

In 1994, Jim Clark and Mark Andreessen founded Netscape Communications in order to commercialize the Mosaic web browser, initially developed by Andreessen and others at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The web browsing tool was wildly popular, and the growth of web "pages" and "sites" began to take off. Netscape distributed its browser for free over the Internet, ensuring ubiquity. It went public in 1995 with a lofty market valuation, leaving observers wondering how they did it and what it all meant.

It should be recalled that dialup (non-Internet) computer services, from small bulletin board services (BBS's) to larger proprietary networks such as Compuserve, had existed for some time before that. This is how AOL got off to its shaky start in 1989. It came to embrace the Internet much later on. The appeal of the BBS's was always the sharing of common interests, messaging, chatting, "flaming," and flirting, often in an environment of anonymity and even intrigue. This remains at the core of many people's impulse to log on today. Email, instant messaging, and topical message boards are still the "stickiest" of Internet applications.

How did web portals get started?

Graduate students Jerry Yang and David Filo, working in a small trailer office, began to experiment with a searchable directory of web sites, categorized by topic. The web directory was born! In late 1993, this was simply known as "Jerry Yang's Guide to WWW." Housed on Stanford University servers, it proved popular with the first web users. How else would you find the good stuff? They soon found backers for their project, and an audacious name for their company: Yahoo! (Some executives at the company still hold titles like Chief Yahoo! and Permission Marketing Yahoo!.) Their last financing before going public in 1996 valued the company at a cool $300 million. It seemed like market euphoria - surely a sign that the economy was overheated! - but Yahoo! (and the economy) continued to roll throughout the 1990's. Today it's a global Internet brand, and enjoys a valuation above $80 billion even on a bad day. This may explain why venture capitalists can afford to back a few duds.

With money comes attention. A lot of people wanted to know about companies like this. Maybe this explains the cult-like following of investment discussion site Silicon Investor, launched in 1995 by Kansas natives Brad and Jeff Dreyer, and acquired by Go2Net in 1998. Today, sites like Raging Bull (now part of Altavista) and yes, Yahoo's own financial discussion message boards, outstrip Silicon Investor in quantity, if not quality, of discussions. The first Yahoo-related post on Silicon Investor, in April 1996, opined that "Yahoo doesn't have ANY intrinsic value, except for the name."

Along with Yahoo, other Internet search engines and directories, like Altavista, Excite, Open Text, Magellan, Infoseek, and Lycos also became popular and debate raged (as it does today) over which one was best. To get on the map, a search engine generally had to pay for featured status on the Netscape browser or Netscape home page, since few people had heard of a search engine. In the early days, a common place to find out about these new Internet search tools was still the resource pages maintained by university computing centers or resource librarians. Commercial uses of the Internet were still anathema to the community.

Most of the above search companies have benefited in some way by the explosive popularity of the Web. All of these sites started off as merely search engines or directories, but when they began experiencing page views numbering in the millions each day, most realized they could use their popularity by offering more features that would keep people at their sites once the user got done searching for something. The portals would group similar subject together to entice users to check them out.

Fueled by lofty stock valuations, portal companies began purchasing other companies for their technology, content, or unique business models, as Yahoo did when it purchased the Internet white pages companyFour11, which allows the user to look up addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and the like. In 1996, every such deal prompted oohing and aahing, but by 1999, most of the larger Internet companies had become capable of financing deals of breathtaking size. Go2Net and Lycos are amongst those who have grown quickly through a blistering pace of acquisitions. Others, like Infoseek (now part of Disney's Go Network) and Snap (now part of NBC Internet), sold out to major media conglomerates in order to accelerate their expansion.

Industry consolidation brings about a need for sharpened analysis of the industry heavyweights as well as those seeking to become heavyweights or be acquired by them. It seems that no quality Internet property can stay independent for long, and pundits nowadays comb the lists of the top 1,000 web sites, wondering which deal will get made next. The AOL Time Warner merger seems like a logical culmination of the ascent of new media companies to the pinnacle of global economic power: the new economy, with AOL founder Steve Case as its mascot, outflanks the old. Will this be the deal to end all deals, or can we expect more of the same?

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How do web browsers fit in?

Netscape Navigator, for many users, defaulted to the Netscape home page unless they took the trouble to change their default page. This seems to make it doubly impressive that Yahoo and Excite succeeded. Web surfers had to make a conscious decision to make Yahoo their "home page" or "start page." Netscape relaunched its home page as a more full-featured "portal" called Netcenter in 1999, shortly before the company was acquired by AOL. Microsoft Internet Explorer, the leading web browser today and the main subject of the protracted antitrust proceedings against Microsoft, defaults to Microsoft's portal, MSN. Today, MSN offers a strong challenge to AOL and Yahoo, but Netcenter holds only a relatively insignificant niche position in the scheme of things. In short, the browser companies have taken advantage of their captive audiences to ensure that users are not just using their web browsing software, but also using their portal.

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Where does Internet access fit in?

Dialup and high-speed Internet access are an important part of this picture. There has always been something of a dichotomy between Internet users who have had generic dialup access through an Internet Service Provider which only provided access, and those who have belonged to a service such as AOL which offered access and a full slate of online services and content in tandem. Today, most access companies are working on deriving revenue from the content or content distribution side of the equation. So, the cable @Home service acquired the Excite portal company; the UK's Freeserve is both an access company and a portal company; Canada's Sympatico (owned by Bell Canada Enterprises, Inc.) is both a dialup service and a portal; Compuserve, owned by AOL, offers its own selection of online services and content; and newly-merged ISP's Mindspring and Earthlink offer users a portal or start page through a variety of content partnerships, notably with Lycos. It's a complex picture. Users can and should decide for themselves what is the best stuff on the Internet, no matter who their Internet Service Provider may be, or where their software may take them at first. Access providers, on the other hand, rely on their users sticking close to the default offerings provided to them when they set up the service.

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What features do consumer web portals have?

Portals offer a wide range of customization options and functionality including: Internet search and navigation; email; customized news, weather, sports, and horoscopes; planners, calendars, and contact managers; bookmark managers to save favorite web sites; real-time chat; message boards; original content on every imaginable topic; shopping; free home pages; "clubs" which function as makeshift intranets; small business services; and much more. Increasingly, major portals are seeing to it that vital content such as news, stock prices, and messages can be accessed with wireless devices and phones.

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Where can I find statistics about the top web portals?

Some leading web traffic and usage measurement services are Media Metrix, PC Data Online, WebSideStory, Alexa, and Nielsen Netratings. You can also have a look at Cyberatlas for more general statistics. Consulting concerns like Forrester Research, IDC, Boston Consulting, The Yankee Group, Jupiter Communications, and many traditional investment firms are also good sources for a range of research reports. Traffick intends to provide handy guide to portal-related statistics and research reports in the near future.

I don't use a portal. Aren't they going the way of the dodo?

A lot of individual users say they start their day with a blank web page, or make their own start page with their favorite links. But let's face it, the numbers say it all. The portal sites have the users in spades.

Why are so many of the portals' offerings free?

The quick response, and a misleading one, is to suggest that these services are advertising-supported. That oversimplifies matters. Portals, like all emerging companies in the technology field, come with a range of innovative business models and expect to earn revenue from a variety of revenue streams. An attentive, registered base of users is seen as a valuable asset. On average, a loyal user will spend a certain amount on e-commerce, emerging branded services like online banking, or other services. And of course there is always that advertising. Internet analysts suggest that the larger and more influential Internet companies act as "platforms" for e-commerce. Steve Harmon has compared AOL to a "digital nation." Many Internet companies deliberately resist revenue-generating opportunities so that their growth in market share is not impeded. But eventually the most successful companies will have many revenue opportunities which aren't apparent in today's balance sheets. Yahoo, for example, is now highly profitable after several years of losing money. Due to its size and strong brand, it's likely to become highly profitable in the future as there are likely many unrealized revenue opportunities associated with its vast audience.

Specific revenue models include the following: banner advertising -- x amount per 1,000 banner views (or impressions) is typical; hefty fees from advertisers or partner retailers who are "featured" on the main start page; fee-based premium services (Silicon Investor, Go2Net's investment site, charges $200 for a lifetime membership though much of its content is free); direct marketing campaigns (Xoom or Yahoo may email you with product offers if you give them permission); keyword-based advertising on search engines (you pay x amount to have your company's ad banner to appear next to the Metacrawler search results for "whole grain cereals," for example); and the list goes on.

The business of portals is becoming extremely complex and difficult even for qualified analysts to fathom. A large number of customers has always been seen to be the goal of the "portal wars," as the companies involved believed that they could "monetize the eyeballs" later. With the global expansion of these audiences, the rollout of high-speed DSL, cable, and wireless services, convergence with television broadcasting, and megamergers such as the AOL Time Warner deal, portal companies will continue to grow and evolve, and it will take serious expertise to understand what makes them tick.

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What is Traffick?

Traffick, the Guide to Portals, was launched on September 1, 1999 with a plan to offer the most comprehensive analysis and coverage of the major consumer web portals, and that is still our goal. We picked the name Traffick because (a) it seems catchy; (b) the URL was available; and (c) it's a pun relating to two aspects of the new economy: the all-important measurement of "website traffic" (page views or user sessions), which is immense at the leading portal sites, and the fact that the major portals depend heavily on e-commerce (the trafficking of goods and services) on a massive scale.

What led you to start this site?

The portals are a vital part of the online experience of hundreds of millions around the globe, and the underlying companies are the world's new economic heavyweights, spanning the worlds of technology, retail, and mass broadcast media. We felt their importance was being downplayed by much of the media, and their role and function often being misrepresented.

While you won't find it easy to get anyone to invest in your idea for "the next AOL," that simply underlines the fact that companies like AOL have become enormously successful, perhaps prohibitively so for the small startup.

We noticed that there was plenty of coverage of cyber-culture, programming, and even search engines, but very little coverage of the many other things that the search engine companies began to do. At first, we thought that someone should offer comparisons of portal features. In addition to that, we think it's important that someone tries to make sense of it all, and to provide handy news digests, insights, and discussion about various aspects of the portal wars. While a good deal of our material is useful to beginners, much of our audience is made up of business and Internet professionals.

Another thing we noticed in 1999 was that everyone and his brother came up with the idea of being a "portal to portals." All but a handful of these sites were just lists of links! We wanted to do a lot more than just slap together a few links.
Our challenge today is to give the Traffick audience an opportunity to interact in a more meaningful way. That's why we hope you'll join our moderated discussion list. Just send a blank email to traffickweeklysubscribe@topica.com and go from there. Look for more interesting community building from us in the future.

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Aren't there several types of portal? Which is which?

Today, like it or not, the term "portal" is going strong. The rapid growth of new ways of leveraging the Internet for communal and corporate purposes has spawned at least four common meanings for the term portal. In addition to (1) major consumer web portals like Yahoo, we're witnessing a blistering pace of growth in (2) corporate portals or Enterprise Resource Portals; (3) vertical, affinity, or niche portals; and (4) industry or B2B portals.

What is a vertical portal, or vortal?

Vertical or niche portals are what we might have called web sites in the past. Today, however, certain category-leading web sites in a given topical category, or catering to a given demographic, are such significant players that many call them portals. The list of very popular and economically significant vertical portals is growing rapidly. Examples include ivillage (aimed at women); guru.com (for independent professionals); and Boatscape (for boat enthusiasts, of course!). We're planning to build a directory of these.

Demographically-focused portals (and these are now big business, with portals being launched to cater to specific ethnic groups, specific age groups, alternative lifestyles, religions, and other groups which are perceived to form a community or market) are now being called affinity portals by some analysts. The terminology isn't set in stone, but what is clear is that "vertical" content, community, and commerce seem to enjoy increasing favor in the marketplace.

In some ways, we've come full circle, and major web companies have begun to tap into the shared interests that made a much smaller number of people dial in to computer networks in the 1980's and early 1990's. About.com, which has now cracked the top ten in the rankings of the most heavily-trafficked web properties, bills itself as the world's largest "network of vertical sites led by expert human guides." Notice, then, that in this case, About.com's 700 "verticals" are highlighted, but they are being called a "network." The notion of a loose confederacy of relatively independent "states" under the same banner makes a lot of sense. In this instance, portal may not be the most descriptive term. Suite 101 is another popular "community of communities" led by volunteer editors.

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What about Enterprise Resource Portals (ERP's)? Corporate Portals? EIP's? IT Portals?

Much of the buzz in 2000 is about Enterprise Resource Portals (ERP's), Enterprise Information Portals (EIP), or simply Corporate Portals. We've also heard terms like knowledge management portals, or IT portals, being used. This, we dare say, is the evolution of the intranet (and also what was once called the "extranet"?). If many corporations are like small nations, it does help to have all employees on the same page, and able to access a vast range of functionality, knowledge, events, news, etc. depending on their access levels. Company managers and CIO's are today full of questions about the best solutions and strategies to build the latest generation ERP's for their purposes. Ironically, such products, albeit without the web-based functionality, have been around for quite some time, and it's only recently that the word "portal" started being used to describe them. Arguably it was Open Text (recall that the Open Text Index was a leading consumer Internet search engine until it withdrew from the competition in that space in 1996) which launched the first newer-generation, web-functional, full-featured knowledge management and workflow tool for corporate intranets (Open Text Livelink). Today, hundreds of solutions exist, with larger companies like SAP, Plumtree, Epicentric, and many others claiming the lion's share of the business, but with many nimbler or more focused players such as Brio Technologies trying desperately to keep up with the demand for latest-generation knowledge management solutions for a mobile, web-enabled age. Why "portal" and not "intranet"? We can't say precisely, but perhaps intranet sounds too insular and "yesterday."

>>>>Coming soon: For the ultimate resource about ERP's and corporate portals, check out aboutportals.com. Traffick is proud to be a partner of this important resource. The site provides a range of analysis and comparisons for managers and CIO's seeking answers about what solutions may be most appropriate for them.

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What are B2B portals?

B2B or industry portals are in the corporate sector, like ERP's, and are "vertical," like vertical or affinity portals. But here we see something a little bit different from either of these: places where particular industries can go for information sharing, and most importantly, the completion of transactions. This is a relatively new phenomenon but possibly the most significant one in economic terms. B2B or industry portals can act as real engines for the new economy, and are acting as a catalyst in making old economies new. Imagine the reduced friction of sourcing and buying supplies and parts in a particular industry. Imagine suppliers of raw materials bidding to sell their products to manufacturers through an auction process. Imagine a major pizza company automating the procurement of flour, tomato sauce, and pepperoni from local suppliers through an Internet-based bidding system rather than the more complicated methods used in the past. If people with similar interests or demographic features might have "affinities" and a willingness to buy consumer goods from particular advertisers, imagine how much people in the same profession will have to share, and how much commerce might be transacted through these channels. This is the promise of the B2B or industry portal. It is reshaping the world as we speak. An early mover in the field of building industry-specific portals was a company called VerticalNet. Companies which can take on the function of maintaining an industry portal stand to profit handsomely, particularly if they retain an ownership stake in the web site, or charge a transaction fee for business done through the portal.

Where can I go for more information?

We're always trying to improve this resource. Contact the editor@traffick.com with your questions and feedback, or explore the site for our various articles and reports. The growing community of readers is also a great resource. As a question on our forum, join our moderated news & discussion list (the Traffick Weekly), or subscribe to our monthly Traffick Newsletter.

We maintain links to the most vital resources for portal aficionados in two ways: (1) in our own online bookmarks collection built using the Traffick Favorites utility (this is free; you can sign up and use this to manage your own collections online and share them with others as you please); and (2) in a more conventional directory of links, which we're currently putting together.

These aren't intended as exhaustive catalogs of web sites, but as a selective listing of only the most incredibly important resources relating to portals... resources like Search Engine Watch and a couple of hundred others.

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