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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Computer Basics

Why Entryways to the Web Can Be So Inviting

July 27, 1998|KIM KOMANDO | Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author

If some Internet sites have their way, you won't be surfing the Web and dropping by myriad sites any longer. Instead, you'll spend considerable time at only one site, known as an Internet "portal," that handles your communication, content, commerce and community needs. In fact, the foremost goal of any Internet portal is to create a sense of belonging within a virtual community.

An Internet portal is essentially a Web super site--a site that wants to be your start page and your end page. To make these sites as appealing as possible, their owners offer a wide variety of services, most of them free. For example, the typical portal these days offers free e-mail accounts. Instant messaging programs are also quite popular among these sites, as are Web-based chat rooms and message boards. And of course, there's the ever-popular free search engine.

All of these services are provided to give you a sense that you're doing more than just visiting a Web site. I call this the American Express approach to Web sites. Years ago, American Express conducted surveys that showed people were much happier being called members instead of customers or cardholders. Thus the slogan: "Membership has its privileges." Portals operate on the same concept.

Why is this sense of community so important to these portal sites? It all comes down to dollars and cents. Because these sites provide primarily free services to you and me, they have to generate income by selling online advertising space.

The thinking is that the more free services they provide and the more they make you feel like a "member" instead of simply a user, the more time you're likely to spend at that site. And that means the site can charge its advertisers more.

No matter where you go at a portal, you're bound to see an advertisement.

Netscape was a pioneer in the portal concept with its Netcenter site (http://www.netcenter.com). Rather than reinvent the wheel, Netscape has teamed with other noteworthy Internet companies to offer many of its free services. For example, Netcenter's free e-mail is actually provided by USA.net, which operates the NetAddress free e-mail service. Instant Messenger, Netcenter's instant messaging software, was actually developed by America Online and is also available through AOL. Netcenter's Internet search engine is provided by Excite.

Netcenter also offers among its many services business-related discussion groups, a career center, an online auto-buying area, a personal finance area and a multitude of online shopping spots.

Internet search engines have long been popular starting points for Web surfers. So it's no wonder that many of the more popular search engines have embraced the portal concept. Among them are AltaVista (http://www.altavista.digital.com), Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com), Excite (http://www.excite.com) and Lycos (http://www.lycos.com).

AltaVista offers the requisite portal features--free e-mail, search facilities, categorical information--but seems to have more of an international slant. For example, there's a page on which you can type in text and have it translated from English to French, German, Italian, Portuguese or Spanish--or vice versa.

As a search tool, Yahoo has always been one of my favorite stops on the Web, and the addition of portal features makes this site all the more appealing. You'll find free e-mail and searching, and you can set up a personalized Yahoo called My Yahoo (http://my.yahoo.com), too.

There's also live chat with various scheduled topics and dozens of message boards that fall under these broad categories: Business and Finance, Computers and Internet, Current Events, Entertainment, Health, Regional, Society and Culture and Sports and Recreation.

The instant messaging software, Yahoo Pager, is available as a Windows 95 download or an online Java version, which means that Macintosh and Unix users aren't excluded. You can also sign up to have Yahoo (via MCI) as your Internet service provider.

Excite is a respectable contender. There's an online investment area operated in conjunction with Charles Schwab. You can buy groceries online through eGrocer. The Excite Product Finder puts a twist in online shopping: Type what you're looking for and Excite will list sites and prices.

And of course, there's access to the Excite search engine, which I consider one of the best.

Visit Lycos and you'll find more of the same. This is not to say that Lycos isn't a worthwhile site, but there are only so many services that one of these Internet portals can offer, and to a large extent, once you've visited one portal, you've visited them all. One exception with Lycos: It offers free home pages through Tripod, a service not found on most other portal sites.

Are portals a good idea? Sure. At a single site, you get the Internet's information and services at a mouse-click. Portals bring to the Web what the mall brought to the world of shopping. The difference is that every mall I've ever shopped at has had its own unique character. But there's not much more one portal can do to distinguish itself from the next, other than offer totally free Internet access, which none is doing currently. Now that would be something.

My guess is that only three portal sites will remain by this time next year. It's also possible that portals will be replaced eventually. There's already talk about hubs that will, for example, learn how to prioritize a user's search results.

*

Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author. You can visit her on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at komando@komando.com. Her national talk radio program can be heard on Saturdays from 7 to 9 a.m. on 97.1 KLSX-FM.

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