“Make this your homepage!” links remind me strongly of the late 1990s, when people thought that the only way to keep you coming back to a site was to force your browser to bring you there, time and time again. Surfing the internet, or logging into AOL, was a big event back in the days before broadband — it usually involved dialing into your ISP, waiting for the modem tones, and then having your computer sloooooowly render some hypertext. “Using the internet” was an event, it was something you thought about doing before you did it, it was something you planned out in advance. Now, the internet is so pervasive that there are no real boundaries anymore — broadband users have always-on connections, email apps checking for messages every 30 seconds, constantly connected IM clients, VoIP phones, browsers running 24 hours a day — so “getting on the internet” is no longer an event. It’s just there, the internet is part of your daily computer life, there’s no “start” or “end” to your surfing because everything is integrated into the web.
Portals did well back in the day because the internet was new & fresh and users needed a guide. The web was like a new country without a documented highway system, you just had to feel your way around and leave breadcrumbs (bookmarks) to find your way back to places you liked. There were no sophisticated content directories, no all-knowing Google, no ways to “stumble upon” cool sites, the only way you were going to find interesting pages was if your friends emailed them to you or they were linked from a site you already visited regularly and that’s where the portals came in. Sites like the old Lycos, Excite, Netscape, AOL, and Yahoo! were the most visited pages on the web because those were the homepages that users trusted to show them the Internet’s sites.
That was back then, now everything is different.
People make friends online — they find them via the internet, connect online, and either make a virtual relationship or a physical one appear that wasn’t there before. Everything is now shared — your friends share content with you: they share photos, movies, music, pictures, blogs, bookmarks, and anything else you can possibly think of. There are thousands of sites dedicated to helping you connect with others and explore new sites you didn’t know about before, and that numbers is growing every day. There are weblogs dedicated to every topic imaginable, and there are massive blog indices and search engines that can find you that content in a snap. Heck, now you can create your own content about anything you want, slap your photos on there, make virtual friends, send your content around to all of them, interact about your topic, and form your own virtual community about whatever interests you. The point is that now there’s no need to have all-knowing guides to the internet, no need for homepage portals to hold your hand while you read new sites, because now that the internet is so pervasive into all our lives we’re submerged in it, with no hand-holding necessary.
My buddy Richard MacManus wrote a great review of all (or most) of the “new portals” coming out (Netvibes, Protopage, Pageflakes, etc.) These new portals offer the same functionality that the portals of the mid-to-late 1990s offered, but with some new makeup and clothes so they stand out from the crowd a bit, but why? In this new land of shared content, exploratory browsing, virtual communities and such, why are portals still necessary? Do people in the broadband age still load up their browser to a homepage now, or do they load their browser because they clicked on a link in an email or already know what URL they want to go to? In this always-on connected world, is hand-held browsing still necessary?
Provide Value, Get Paid
The basic business model for this new era (or possibly all eras) is to provide value to people who have money, and have them compensate you for this provided value. If you have a subscription-based service where people pay $10/mo to use your product, then you must provide value to them in order for customers to keep paying. If you are running an ad-supported business, then you must provide value to two parties: 1) the users you want on your site, and 2) the advertisers you want purchasing ads. If you cannot provide value to users then they won’t come to your site, and then with no users on your site you can no longer provide any value to the advertisers paying your bills. So with these concepts in mind, how will the new portal homepages make money? They can’t start charging users to use them, because a user will just switch to a free portal homepage, so they must be making money with ads. However, to make money with ads they must provide enough value to the users to keep them coming back, and is that actually happening? If a portal homepage does its job, then a user will be clicking away from the portal within seconds of loading it up, so is that a 1 pageview to 1 unique user ratio? I’m not sure if that’s appetizing to sponsors, but if I were thinking about purchasing ads on a new AJAX homepage than I’d be pretty cautious.