Steve Malone: 'IT's Like This...'

There's a new buzzword floating around the Internet business. It's called 'portal site' (alright, that's two buzzwords which only goes to show the rampant buzzword inflation that goes on round here).

There's a new buzzword floating around the Internet business. It's called 'portal site' (alright, that's two buzzwords which only goes to show the rampant buzzword inflation that goes on round here). And everyone these days from Yahoo to MSN is clambering aboard claiming to be a Portal site. Another, less aggressive term is 'Aggregate site' which to me sounds like building site, but we'll let that pass.

The thinking behind becoming a portal site is to get people on your site from the moment they log onto the Web and then keep them there. Naturally, while they are splashing around your site, you can show them ads, offer them stuff, and generally herd them around to whomsoever pays you to point the punters in their direction.

While the concept of generating traffic on your site for fun and profit has been around ever since Marc Andreeson thought it would be a cool idea to add graphics to HTML, the concept of the portal site dawned slowly on the normally enterpreneurial World Wide Web.

The shining light for all this is AOL who has millions and millions of users looking at all sorts of content and never wanting to go outside into the badlands of the Web. Not that AOL makes it particularly easy to do so, but that's another story.

What blinded everyone of course were the three words World Wide Web and the utopian idea that you could and should provide hyperlinks to other sites, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. This foolish notion has now been laid to rest and the name of the game is now maximising revenue from your inventory (i.e. the number of pages viewed that have ads on them).

How did all this come about? For some time, it has been known that if you have a collection of users who, either by default or persuasion, make your Web site their 'home' page, you get an awful lot of page views when they wake their browsers up each morning. The commercial power of this 'Web traffic' was demonstrated early on by Netscape when it owned the browser market a couple of years ago. At one point, it was making more money from the advertising on its home page than it was from selling its products.

At the time, everyone else, with the exception of Microsoft (which had it own agenda), ruefully shrugged their shoulders and said it couldn't be duplicated. Then the search engines twigged that, rather than allowing punters to pour in one door and then be hustled out the back to wherever they were looking for, wouldn't it be neat if that content could be hosted by themselves. From the early days of Yahooligans for kids and the 'local' Yahoos, there is now content on every conceivable topic (including I should say, News from ZDNet UK, which at least says that Yahoo picks from the best).

The effect is like walking into a Las Vegas casino. There are entrances aplenty, but the solitary exit is darkened and not well signposted. In the meantime you wander around lost among the shiny slot machines and gambling tables all tempting you to part with your money.

The final part of the jigsaw fell into place when email was hailed as the killer application for the Internet and that it wasn't so hard to host a mail service. In fact it could be offered free. Now, as mentioned in previous columns, everyone and his dog is offering free email.

This is not so much an Internet strategy as a Burger King strategy. You want news? We got it! You want the Weather? We got it? You want email? We got it! Who could ask for anything more? Well, I can actually. The end result is you get a burger. Tasty and filling enough at the time, but it's not exactly a meal is it?

Portal sites definitely hold a niche in the market. There are some people who will always be content to graze and no-one can argue with AOL's continued success. However, research shows that people --especially the lucrative business employees-- use the Web to research hard information. Portal sites claim to address information overload by offering a solution by aggregating content. But Web users are looking for deep wells when portal sites only offer a shallow pond.

Steve Malone is Associate Publisher of ZDNet UK/GameSpot UK