Let's Get This Straight: Any portal in a storm

All-in-one Web sites are sparking a corporate mating frenzy. Are they really worth the billions?

Published June 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The Internet industry has a knack for coining awful buzzwords (anyone remember "push"?). So maybe "portal" was inevitable. Never mind that "portal" sounds like that cosmic bagel Jaye Davidson coveted in "Stargate" -- or like something Captain James T. Kirk might pass through while boldly going where no man has gone before. At this fleeting instant in Web time, no word in the language has a more inflated value than "portal."

If you've been following the trade press for the last few months, you know that "portal" -- in dictionary terms, "doorway, gate or entrance" -- is merely a label for a search site like Yahoo or Excite that has beefed up its offerings to include services like free e-mail, stock quotes, news feeds and so on. A portal owner hopes and intends that millions of Web users will adopt his site as the first page they see when they launch their browsers; then he can rake in the money selling those "eyeballs" to advertisers.

This is the thinking that has fueled the past week's corporate mating frenzy, as NBC took a big stake in CNET's foundering Snap portal and Disney bought into Infoseek. In the portal wars, both of these sites are considered second-tier (Infoseek) or worse (Snap); the leaders are Yahoo, Netscape, America Online, Excite and Microsoft.

Each of these companies' sites, you'll notice, has a different basis for its original popularity. Yahoo built its business with its crafted-by-humans catalog of Web sites. America Online's well-trafficked Web site is a mere appendage of its 12-million-member proprietary online service. Excite is a search engine that catapulted itself into the portal lead through smart marketing. Netscape's home page has always attracted a ton of traffic because it's the first page to which Netscape's browser takes every new user. And Microsoft is, well, Microsoft -- even when it wasn't doing anything portal-like, the company's home page got millions of visitors seeking software updates, bug fixes and the like. Now Microsoft is building its site into a true portal called "Start" (a "beta" version opened this week) that its increasingly popular Internet Explorer browser will point users toward.

Portals are nothing new; they've been around, under other names (search engines, "jump stations"), almost as long as the Web itself. What's new is that technology companies like Netscape and Microsoft are trying to transmute their home-page traffic into media businesses that rake in ad revenue. At the same time, big-media corporations -- daunted by the difficulty of building bustling Web hubs from scratch -- are hungrily eyeing the existing portal-style businesses. The result? A marketplace that is wildly overvaluing the portal -- as if a doorway were more valuable than a whole building.

Since the Web industry moves in cycles, don't expect portal-mania to last forever. When the phenomenon begins its slide down the far side of the curve, these are some of the factors likely to be responsible:

A portal is a portal is a portal. Today's portal sites all look the same; they're engaged in a never-ending game of copycat features and style overlap. No sooner does one add free e-mail then all offer free e-mail. The result? Overkill and overload. The economists have a word for this condition of look-alike products: commodification. Portal sites are commodities, and commodities are hard to sell at a premium. Wall Street will eventually figure this out, and when it does, expect the portal stocks to take a long-deserved beating.

Hello, I must be going. Portal sites do get millions upon millions of clicks -- but they're not exactly high-quality clicks. The typical users of a search engine or a stock-quote lookup find the infobit they're after and then vamoose. This means that the portal sites will have to depend on least-common-denominator ads; sure, they've got millions of eyeballs, but only for seconds at a time. In the long run, as the Web advertising business evolves beyond simple grab-your-eye banners, the virtual-real-estate value of portal sites may collapse.

It's your (de)fault! The value of a portal depends on the number of users the site has persuaded to adopt it as their browser's default (the page that loads when the browser launches). Even better for them, Netscape and Microsoft are both able to ship browsers pre-set to their own portal sites. Great market power lies in such default settings -- power built on the seemingly inexhaustible well of human laziness.

You can make a fortune on such inertia, no question. But if you base your business on it, you're betting that your customers are going to remain passive. You're betting against the promise of the Internet as a cornucopia of free informational choice. You're betting, in essence, that the Net is going to keep evolving toward the model of network TV. The New York Times' Friday front-page story on Disney's Infoseek deal predicts "a long and brutal war" at the end of which "two or three portal services will become dominant." Sound familiar?

Portal sites do provide valuable services and convenience, and it's understandable that they've become big businesses. But they hardly represent the apogee of what the Internet can offer us. The effort to tie users to a single, personalized home-page base of operations at their favorite portal site may crash head on into the nature of Web technology itself -- which still provides individuals with more power to control their experience than any other medium.

Microsoft's famous ad line asks, "Where do you want to go today?" The portals are betting that large numbers of people are going to want to go to the same place every day. But we have other choices. Whenever I install a new browser, I make a habit of removing its default home page. I don't replace it with another Web address; I leave it blank. Each time I launch the browser, my bookmarks are waiting -- the whole Web is waiting. Why linger in the doorway?

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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