Disney portal slowly passsing GO

Go Network, the portal created by Walt Disney Co. and Infoseek is six months old this week -- and contrary to the expectations of some, Go hasn't turned the Internet upside-down.

Instead, GO executives say the site has spent the last six months slowly establishing its brand, while continuing to roll out new features at a fast clip. While the site may continue to hover just outside the top-five in terms of Internet traffic for now, GO believes the world-class content and brand of Disney will ultimately prove an ace in the hole.

"We believe the guys with the best brand will be the winners," said Infoseek CEO Harry Motro. "As consumers get comfortable with the Internet, they will move toward vertical properties. And there are no stronger vertical brands than Disney's."

Motro's argument reflects recent indications that portal sites, such as Yahoo!, Excite@Home and GO itself, are growing more slowly than they were a year ago. Experts say that as users grow more sophisticated, they no longer have as much need for a portal-like site that collects all sorts of content and services into one place; instead they go to "vertical" sites that excel in one type of subject matter.

GO has tried to have the best of both worlds by integrating strong verticals such as ESPN.com and ABCNews.com into an overarching portal framework. But some believe Disney was mistaken to emphasize the "network" aspect of GO over the strengths of its individual sites. "Maybe what would make sense for GO would be to create a strong series of branded properties, where GO Network becomes simply a way of categorising them," said Allen Weiner, vice president of analytical services for Nielsen/NetRatings. "For example, to emphasise ESPN as a major sports site rather than as part of the GO Network might be a sensible approach."

Even if GO isn't at the top of the heap in terms of traffic -- that honour belongs to Yahoo! or America Online, depending on which numbers you look at -- Weiner points out that GO's traffic gains value in the eyes of advertisers because of Disney's involvement. "If I'm an advertiser, I'd rather sell on a branded ESPN site than on a GO site where I'll get a less-defined audience," he said. "I'd be willing to pay more for a more targeted audience."

The Disney brand is also important in distinguishing GO Network from all the other look-alike portals out there, just as Excite@Home is playing up its broadband and marketing expertise after its purchase by @Home Network, and AOL is seeking to define itself as the Microsoft of the online world.

Analyst Jae Kim of Paul Kagan Associates, a media research firm, says portals have moved into a new phase in which differentiation will be the key to survival. "What GO has been intently focused on is integration with traditional media programming, making sure they create a site that has an unparalleled level of content," he said. "The portal battle is far from over ... I'd say the bell has just rung for the second round."

Kim plays down the traffic numbers, noting that other portals -- aside from AOL -- have been more aggressive about purchasing other popular Web sites and folding those traffic numbers into their own.

Motro said he is less concerned about short-term traffic numbers than in continuing to keep the new venture's momentum going. He said Disney's recent decision to purchase the portion of Infoseek it does not already own will contribute to that momentum. "Disney has been around for 75 years," Motro said. "Brands are built over time, with care, patience and a lot of effort. We want to have this rolling thunder, building and building over time into people's consciousness."