BtoB

NETSENSE: Portals may be hot, but b-to-b must open its own doors

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Lately you can't go online without seeing the word "portal" somewhere. Portal frenzy has swept the Net.

An Internet portal is another expression of the concept previously called hub, entry page, access page or starting site. In lay surfer terms, portal means the Web site you use as your Internet home base, and from where you start your journey through the tangled world of the Web and to which you return on a regular basis for everything from daily news to free e-mail accounts to stock quotes to Web site recommendations.

The SuperPortal

Yahoo.com is a portal -- or, more accurately, a SuperPortal, along with Info-seek.com, Lycos.com, Excite.com and America Online. At this point, my nephew's fourth-grade class Web site may even be a portal, too.

Sites want to be portals because portals attract millions of eyeballs, and eyeballs attract ad dollars. Still, there are serious issues marketers face when trying to figure out what portals mean as marketing opportunities for their sites, services or products.

So what do these portal sites mean to companies marketing on the Web? Everything and nothing.

If you're lucky enough to have a few million bucks to throw around, you could pay a SuperPortal to be the sole advertiser for whatever product category your company markets in. If you sell a product the portal site users care about, you might win big. But if you are a business-to-business marketer, you probably just wasted your money.

The problem with the portals from a b-to-b standpoint is that the largest eight to 10 portal sites are designed more for consumer traffic. Sure, you can find a b-to-b category within any portal site's directory hierarchy, and you may even want to advertise on the section devoted to your industry.

The reality of SuperPortals, however, is that by trying to be all things to all people, they end up doing all things moderately well rather than any one thing extremely well.

I can find a compact disc I want in seconds at Infoseek, or a movie review. But if I need to find a review of suppliers of titanium-coated ball bearings for industrial equipment in the Northeast, Infoseek might not help me much beyond a few company links, if I happen to find them after a few hours of searching.

Therein lies the real opportunity for b-to-b marketers and portal sites: Niche portals.

Hordes of portals

My hunch is that the SuperPortal wars will continue, and most will thrive over the coming years. But in addition to these SuperPortals, we will see, and already are seeing, the creation of hundreds if not thousands of niche portals, each serving a particular population.

Look at your own industry. If a niche portal doesn't exist, perhaps you should consider creating it. Someone will, sooner or later. If one does exist, you may want to research advertising on it. At least be sure you're listed in its site directory.

It's a safe bet the users at that niche portal are far more interested and targeted than the 4 million college kids buying CDs at Yahoo.

If there were a rule about portals, it would be something like this: For business marketing, the more narrow the niche or industry segment, the less likely the major portals will serve it well. Opportunities abound in the niche portal game for those who see the need and fill it. Some things never change, even online.

Eric Ward began the Internet's first third-party Web site awareness-building service in 1994. He also publishes the URLwire, a private e-mail-based news service for new-media editors, writers, reporters and reviewers who cover the Web.

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