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Small portals prove that size mattersDec. 6, 1998
PORTALS and search pages rank near the top of popular World Wide Web sites, and the reason is clear enough: They're useful.
As the major portals and search sites evolve, new competitors are arriving on the scene, mostly at the edges. Meanwhile, the rest of us are pulling the best ideas into our own operations -- or we should be.
The most interesting trend is the growing sense of natural limits, a recognition that covering a single galaxy can be more practical -- and useful -- than trying to cover the entire universe. Sometimes, less really is more.
That notion of limits is anathema to the Wall Street investors who have been bidding up Internet-related share prices to astounding levels, apparently on the guiding principle that market share is everything and that the way to attain market share is to be all things to all people. That notion has made more than a few millionaires and billionaires, but it's a remarkably simplistic view of the world.
These days, the major portals offer a variety of services, including e-mail, electronic commerce and discussion groups. They're also morphing into mega-search sites or forming partnerships with the search companies. But for many customers, their core value is in the way they began: as directories that serve as entry points to the Net.
I'm sure that typical consumers almost always find what they need on Yahoo, Excite, Netscape's Netcenter and other mega-portals. But that's not necessarily the case for people who are most passionate about a particular topic. It's absolutely not the case for people who want information on topics too small to be interesting, or potentially profitable, to the companies creating the huge portals.
Consumer-oriented portals also leave an opening for what you might call white-collar Web directories -- sites aimed at professions where users are willing to pay for timely, targeted information.
In a sense, the major portals already have recognized the limits of size when it comes to their original function. That very structure -- the hierarchy of branches wending ever farther down into the ether -- creates what amounts to mini-portals that grow more and more topic-specific. But they can't do it all, and they know it.
Given the logic of smaller, more focused portals, where are they? Everywhere.
I write about technology and its impact on society. Yahoo and the other mega-catalogs have fine technology listings, but I invariably gravitate to Webstart Communications' ``Computer and Communication'' site (www.cmpcmm.com/cc). I prefer its organization and relentless focus.
The San Jose Mercury News internal Web site has links to dozens of useful journalism-related sites. One is a home page used by the newsroom staff at the New York Times (www.nytimes.com/library/tech/reference/cynavi.html); the page's author, Rich Meislin, calls it ``a solid starting point'' and a way to avoid unnecessary wandering. I call it a mini-portal.
Similarly, as a frequent traveler, I could easily enough consult the extensive travel sections at the mega-sites. Instead, I tend toward Travel.com, but not that specialty site's home page -- rather, I jump straight to the site map (www.travel.com/sitemap.htm), which avoids the relatively useless stuff on Travel.com's home page. (Thanks to fellow scribe John C. Dvorak for spotting the superiority of this lower-down link.)
I've created my own portal, an amalgam of sites I use most frequently. Once this was just a selection of Netscape or Internet Explorer bookmarks. Now it's a Web page, which I load when I run my browser. It's functional, fast and plain (OK, ugly), because for this purpose I rate utility higher than aesthetics. If you really want to see it, I'll put it on my home page (address below) -- but I promise it's more interesting to me than anyone else.
The mega-portals recognize their potential vulnerability here, and they're moving to make their sites more useful in several ways. Their biggest breakthrough is deft personalization: giving individual users a way to create their own customized pages with up-to-date news and other information.
All of these sites, big and small, have something essential in common. They display plain text for the most part along with easy-to-understand navigation -- not fancy but slow-to-display graphics and complicated navigation. When people are hunting for information, they want a well-organized site that operates simply and quickly.
Corporate Web sites typically fail that rudimentary test. They should look to the portals and search engines for tips on what works.
The latest re-design of Microsoft Corp.'s Web site, for example, moves in the right direction. Text is king, with links that are easy to understand and navigate, though the organization becomes messier the further it gets from the home page.
Over time, most enterprises will see the value in providing information this way, for internal as well as external use. A recent report by Merrill Lynch & Co. extravagantly predicts a multibillion-dollar marketplace in what it calls ``Enterprise Information Portals'' that help enterprises get at internal information and at the same time improve communications with customers and suppliers.
The field is already attracting competitors. One is Epicentric, a start-up in San Francisco, which aims to be a portal ``arms dealer'' by offering tools that help companies create their own internal and external portals. Netscape, too, recognizes the opportunity. In addition to its own mega-portal, Netcenter, the company is helping some of its corporate customers create custom portals.
The ability to search a Web site is so essential that we tend to take it for granted. When I know the name of an organization and want to quickly find its Web site, I can often find it by searching from Yahoo's home page. If the organization is listed somewhere in the Yahoo directors, the search will turn it up.
The mega-search engines, such as AltaVista and HotBot, try to index every Web site they can find. They may be aiming too high.
Here, too, a narrower focus can pay big dividends for users.
The primary search index at Excite (www.excite.com) indexes about 2 million Web pages every week or so, and millions of others somewhat less frequently. Search on a common word or phrase, and you'll be inundated with responses that may well be useless and/or out of date.
But on Excite's news page (nt.excite.com), you can search through about 350 publications for news on current affairs. This database of index entries, however, is deliberately limited to only a few days' worth of articles, and Excite re-checks the news sites four times every day, says Kris Carpenter, the company's director of search services.
Also consider ``Sprockets and Cogs'' (www.sprocketsandcogs.com), a recently launched site by a company called NetCreations. This search engine, which serves as a demonstration of software NetCreations wants to sell to other companies, indexes a limited number of Web sites that are useful for people using certain Web-page creation and programming tools.
Both sites show how smaller size can be a selling point. Users can find relevant material, provided they're looking for the kind information the sites offer.
Excite's news page points out the other major advantage: timeliness. By limiting the universe of sites it indexes, Excite can do the indexing more frequently.
AltaVista and its ilk will always be more comprehensive than a targeted search site. Until Webmasters and search-engine companies change their ways, they will always be less timely, too.
Dave Winer, president of UserLand Software, a Silicon Valley company that makes Web-development software, says Web content creators and search engines need to advance the state of their art by adopting new standards. A Web page should tell search-engine software robots, which tunnel around the Web on their indexing chores, only what is new on that page. That way, the search engines wouldn't have to keep re-indexing the same material and could make their digital rounds more frequently.
Winer thinks that the first major search engine to adopt this kind of technology will grab a big lead on the others, because it will offer much more timely information to its users. I tend to agree.
Excite's Carpenter says her company would love to do something like this, but can't even persuade most Webmasters to put ``meta tags'' on their pages. Meta tags contain keywords and other information, invisible to people viewing with browsers but available to the search engines, that describe the content of the page.
In other words, don't hold your breath.
For now, I'll keep using all of the tools I can find to locate all of the best information. Although the mega-sites remain high on my list, I'm increasingly subscribing to a saying from the '60s. It may be out of fashion, but it still holds plenty of truth: Small is beautiful.
Dan Gillmor's column appears each Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. Visit Dan's Web page (www.mercurycenter.com/columnists/gillmor). Or write him (and please include a daytime phone number -- for verification, not publication) at the Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917. PGP fingerprint: FE68 46C9 80C9 BC6E 3DD0 BE57 AD49 1487 CEDC 5C14.