Frequently Asked Questions about Portals (FAQs)
By Andrew Goodman & Cory Kleinschmidt, 3/24/2002
1. What is a web portal?
2. What came before portals?
href="#started">3. How did web portals get started?
4. How do Web browsers fit in?
5. How does Internet access fit in?
href="#features">6. What features do consumer web portals have?
href="#stats">7. Where can I find statistics about the leading portals?
href="#free">8. Why are so many of the portals' offerings free?
href="#traffick">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?
href="#types">12. Aren't there several types of portal? Which is which?
href="#vertical">13. What is a vertical portal, or vortal?
14. What is a horizontal portal?
15. What about Enterprise Resource Portals or corporate portals?
16. What are B2B portals?
href="#more">17. 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
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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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
href="http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/General/NCSAHome.html">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.
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
href="http://www.siliconinvestor.com">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
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 company Four11,
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
href="http://www.lycos.com">Lycos are amongst those who have grown quickly through a blistering
pace of acquisitions. Others, like
href="http://www.infoseek.com">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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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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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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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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Some leading web traffic and usage measurement services are Media
href="http://www.netratings.com">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.
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
say it all. The portal sites have the users in spades.
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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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.
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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.
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 is a horizontal portal?
By contrast, horizontal portals are general interest portals covering a wide
range of topics and features, such as Yahoo! or Lycos. Combinations of internet
access and access to a wide range of information, as with AOL, Excite@Home, Freeserve,
Sympatico, and Earthlink, might also be called horizontal portals. The distinction
between vertical and horizontal portals was necessary to distinguish the mega-portals
from the more topically-focused portals. It is generally acknowledged that there
can only be a few major horizontal portals. Most new entrants today will seek
to establish themselves in a "vertical area."
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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."
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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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.
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Cory Kleinschmidt is the webmaster of Traffick.com.
Andrew Goodman is Editor-in-Chief of Traffick.com and principal of Page
Zero Media, a Toronto-based consulting firm which focuses on search engine optimization
and related marketing services. To stay in touch with search engine and portal trends, be
sure to sign up for Andrew's Traffick
Monthly email newsletter.