SHOOTOUT: Looking for a portal?

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Yahoo. Excite. Lycos. Infoseek. Not long ago, everyone knew these popular Web sites as search engines. In recent months, they have attempted to take on an additional function and a new name: Web portals.

Portals position themselves as all-in-one filters for the Web, whose masses of information could otherwise overload users. People can create highly customized home pages that display information important to them every time they log in.

The goal for a portal site is to increase visitation rates and thus be able to charge more for advertising. This is usually done by persuading users to make the portal their browser's start page -- the first page they see when they get on the Web.

Are all portals created equal?

All portal sites serve the same function, but are they really equivalent? Do they offer the same quality and variety of news and information? And how does the process of customizing a page vary?

For this month's Marketing Shoot-out, we decided to compare two popular portals, including the top site, Yahoo. We assigned 85 WebScore panelists to visit My Yahoo, the portal operated by the Yahoo search engine, and Lycos Personal Guide, which is a part of the Lycos Personal Guide, which is a part of the Lycos Web site.

Participants were asked to spend 10 minutes building a customized Web page at each of the two sites, then compare results. We learned that while individual panelists may have strong opinions about their preferred portal site, neither was the clear winner.

When asked which of the portals is better overall, 42 panelists each voted for My Yahoo and for Lycos Personal Guide, while one person could not decide.

Nearly indistinguishable

There were very few ways in which either site was able to distinguish itself. A perfect example is the customization process. When asked which site is easier to customize, 41 panelists voted for Yahoo and 41 for Lycos. In terms of the site that can be customized more completely, Lycos won, but by an insignificant margin: 43-41.

We also asked panelists to consider the information available at each site. Here as well, opinions were evenly divided. Forty-three people said Lycos Personal Guide offers the better variety of news and information, while 40 voted for Yahoo.

Balloting for the site with the higher quality of information was nearly the same: 43 in favor of Lycos.

Clear preferences

What is most remarkable about these results is that only a few people found no difference between the two sites. Instead, panelists had clear preferences for one site or the other, usually for the same reasons.

For example, 12 participants who preferred My Yahoo cited its extensive customizability as the main reason. "You were able to change everything, including the colors, on Yahoo," one panelist wrote. "Yahoo felt more like my own page than Lycos."

On the other hand, 12 of those who preferred Lycos thought it, not Yahoo, is the more customizable site. As one panelist remarked, "It's more personalized, really."

Some users reported a difference between the two sites that turned out to be illusory. Eleven people who preferred the Lycos site were impressed by the presence of content areas they did not see on Yahoo.

The real difference is that a home page on My Yahoo actually consists of 12 pages, each of which needs to be customized by the user. Lycos Personal Guide fits everything on a single page.

A portal's a portal

Setting that issue aside, participants could find few distinctions between My Yahoo and Lycos Personal Guide. This may be bad news for My Yahoo, which is widely acknowledged as the most popular portal.

The long-run potential of portal sites, however, is questionable. Only 11 panelists, or 13% of the participants in the survey, said they had decided to use My Yahoo or Lycos Personal Guide as their browser's start page.

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