Episode II: The Revenge of the Portal

Why Mainstream Media Is Taking a Cue From These Web Giants

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In the 1990s, there were a handful of big Internet portals. Some, like My Yahoo, became household names. Others died with the dot-com boom. But today the sheer mention of the word "portal" is a reminder of the days of excess. It's a throwback to when every media company wanted to get big fast and become the destination where everyone starts their online day.
Steve Rubel
Steve Rubel Credit: JC Bourcart

In the years since, the internet landscape has changed dramatically. For starters, we have the Long Tail. The web, with its abundant choices, has splintered into thousands of niches and sub-niches. Today, anyone can be a media company. And this has led to a -- get this -- portal renaissance.

Personalized start pages
Web 2.0 has spawned a new breed of personalized start pages (ne portals) that are powered by quick-loading Ajax technology. These sites are extremely flexible and growing in popularity. Personalized start pages include all of the basics -- e-mail, stock quotes, news. However, what's different from portals 1.0 is that these sites are very customizable. A user can add any RSS feed to his or her page as well as custom widgets that add even greater functionality.

Google and Microsoft are building and promoting robust personalized start-page platforms. (Editors note: Microsoft is a client of Mr. Rubel's employer, Edelman.) The two companies have also opened up their sites to developers, but not to advertisers -- at least just yet. This has spawned thousands of customized widgets that do everything from stream the NASA image of the day to eBay listings and more. Other popular horizontal start pages include Netvibes, Protopage and Pageflakes -- all start-ups.

So far this might sound like a re-run of a bad movie, but it's not. The new wave of personalized start pages reach well down into the Long Tail verticals. Every niche and sub-niche can and will have its own personalized start page. In fact, you can already create your own site today easily and share it for free, using FeedRaider.

Mainstream media reaction
Where this gets really interesting is in watching how the mainstream media are reacting. In the last six months The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Newsweek, ESPN and The New York Times have all launched their own start pages. These sites replicate all the features the horizontal sites have. They still let you add feeds from any other source, but they also make it easy for the consumer to gain access to special content that you can only find on these mainstream sites -- such as ESPN Motion videos or a New York Times columnist's favorite blogs, for example.

RSS is so disruptive that it is forcing the mainstream media to adopt the personalized dashboard as a model for the future. After all, if you can take a news feed from ESPN and stick it on your personalized Google page, you're far less likely to browse ESPN.com. You'll only visit to click through on a story that interests you. Personalized start pages fill this void. They keep sophisticated audiences on mainstream media sites, while exposing neophytes to the exciting world of RSS's limitless choices.

Start-page battles
So we see a start-page battle shaping up in the months ahead, between the mainstream news outlets and the search portals. The stakes are high. These are going to be the places where people increasingly initiate their browsing. This means that the start page will become a critical funnel for advertising.

And next, the TV nets will launch their own start pages, packed with special content that's tied to their programming franchises, such as exclusive video or unseen episodes.

Keep an eye on this space. There's a big battle brewing and the race is still wide open.

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Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. He is senior VP in Edelman's Me2Revolution practice.
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