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Portals to the past – why Yahoo! is lost

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13 October 2009

Just the other day I noticed that Yahoo! had plonked their logo next to Flickr’s. Yahoo!, in case you didn’t know, bought Flickr a couple of years back.

Why have the Yahoo! logo next to Flickr’s? It certainly does not enhance the Flickr brand, although I suppose it might give Yahoo! a little leg up.

Curious, I went to have a look at the Yahoo! front page to see whether it still resembled a portal. And, oh goodness me! It does.

What follows is a post I wrote in 2002 and updated in 2004. Now updated for 2009.

Does the portal concept still make sense on the Internet?

Let’s restate what a portal was supposed to be: a website that offers structured pathways into the web (as opposed to dynamically generated as with search), offering a wide range of services and content. Almost all you need really. A one-stop shop.

These portals will be the gateway through which most internet users would pass to the rest of the web. But to support the business model – sell media space – the real aim is to keep as much traffic within the portal and monetise it via ads. And if this can’t be done, to sell the links themselves.

When companies like Yahoo! and Lycos had their IPO’s, the market agreed that portals were a good idea.

But in the long run, for companies like Yahoo!, Lycos and MSN being internet portals has caused endless problems. They have been at sixes and sevens, trying to be all things to all people, fighting with their own internal subdivions over the use of an overarching brand, style, link hierarchies and placement and consistent navigation. All this strife as a direct result of being “portals”.

Yahoo! tries to be social

Picture by TJtalks

They have been slowly haemorrhaging users and not growing their reach, except in key services like instant messaging and email where they got an early head start and had good solid products. But they are losing ground to the MySpaces (2009 update: Facebook) and Googles of this world.

Portals are tied to an old fashioned view of the media.

A view that does not get that with the internet, power shifts away from large top down media companies. Away from companies that were set up to produce fairly general content to be consumed by large groups of consumers.

What they missed of course is that in reality we are moving deeper into a world where every person can become a producer and not just a consumer of media. This is a concept that companies like Google got from the start. (These days its often called social media.)

If you accept this vision of the changing media world – a world where it becomes easier and easier for anyone to create a website, post a comment, and upload a video – then it follows that on the Internet there will be a great number of websites. (Jeff Jarvis says we’re moving from an economy where we needed to manage scarcity to one where we need to manage abundance – in media at least.)

Yes, it’s true that entry points to the web are potentially very valuable. If you control these entry points you become the gatekeeper to this fragmented media landscape. Which is exactly why Netscape – the company that blasted the first hot air into the first net bubble – was thought to be so valuable. It was thought that through ownership of an internet browser, one could become the gatekeeper to the web’s content.

Following the same logic, the concept of the internet portal did make sense. That is, if the internet worked liked other media did.

Yes, until search engines evolved into qualitative rank listings, the media space and the links on a portal were significant. But the ever-expanding web universe and  the introduction of Google’s PageRank system changed the landscape dramatically. Google ranks a page according to how many pages link to it. Thus if web users link to your page, Google reckons it merits a higher value.

Web users won’t recommend a jack-of all-trades website by linking to it. It destroys their credibility if they recommend bad stuff.

And no single portal could possibly list and link to all the websites a single user would like to use. Users’ needs are too specific, various and constantly shifting. And thus websites – large or small – tend to link to the best services/ pages directly. Why send people to a general page first if you can deliver the right page right now? So it’s clear PageRank loves specialisation.

Search engines’ indexing hierarchy (I did not know the term SERPs back then) favour and therefore create a web where there are lots of specialised “champion” websites.

The result of all this is that search engines have become category winner selection engines. (Jeff Jarvis calls this ‘do what you do best and link to the rest’.) Users have come to know that, when used well, a search engine gives them access to the best web content and services. Once you follow this logic you can see how the old style portal concept is really dead.

(Just this week I read an Ofcom study that says that young people routinely trust search engines to give them the best links:

Among children aged 12-15 who use the internet, almost all have experience of using search engine websites (94%).

There is no clear consensus among search engine users, but 12-15s are more likely to respond that results are ranked on their usefulness or relevance (37%) or their truthfulness (32%) than they are to respond that websites pay money to be at the top of the list (14%). )

(More proof: SEOMoz – the search engine optimisation site – recently wrote an article on a web design trend – the Single Purpose home page.)

See it as an opportunity. Develop your sub-brand well and it will soar even when you’re not linking to it from your front page – like Yahoo! Pipes. If it does not work well, pull it. It’s instant feedback. Google did this with Google Video, while portals like Lycos were flogging dead horses for years via their homepage.

It gets worse.

What compounds this problem for the portals even more is that users are increasingly becoming so used to the mechanics of search and are increasingly using search as a way of navigation. For instance, when I want to look up information on Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin on Wikipedia, I just search for “wikipedia idi amin” via Google and click on the first link Google serves up. I’m there. Why bother entering the Wikipedia address into the browser and then searching Wikipedia for Idi?

Search as navigation is becoming an unstoppable force.

Search as a form of navigation

The portals are squeezed on two sides. They are not specialist sites – the sites that tend to be recommended by search engines – and users don’t need portals to point them to these sites.

Time for a bit of futurology: users will navigate the web in two ways. By searching keywords like “web mail” and by searching for brands like “Yahoo! Mail” (and sub-brands and sub-sub-brands). In other words, when you search for something and you don’t have a brand in mind, you will just do a normal keyword search.

If you do have a brand in mind, you will Google/ navigate directly to the sub-brand you know and trust it to work well. (I for instance use Yahoo! Mail and I Google “mail yahoo” to directly go to mail.yahoo.com.) I never go to Yahoo first and then to Mail.

[Gallery not found]
The Yahoo! portal

And it’s already happening. I checked Nielsen Netratings’s stats and the majority of Yahoo! Mail users do exactly that and never ever see the Yahoo! front page. Even though Yahoo! tries to persuade us all the time to go and have a look. Many BBC Online users go to BBC News only and skip the portal front page.

But even Yahoo! has been realising that users come to it for specific good products and not primarily because they are Yahoo! the portal. That is why Yahoo has bought a huge and dynamic one-trick-pony, Flickr, but won’t be changing Flickr’s name. It would be stupid to change its name because a recognizable brand is paramount if you want users to find (search for) a service.

Nor have they been adding links from the Yahoo! home page to Flickr. It does not need to. Flickr is a top ranked website already thank you very much. (They have now – but it’s more a badge of honour and brand association than anything else.)

There you have it- The so-called Yahoo! home page is actually just a glorified site map. Why put your site map on your home page?!

The Yahoo! users increasingly go directly to the services Yahoo! offer, bypassing the front page. And you can bet your bottom dollar the successful Yahoo! channels and services are a success because they are good, not because they are featured on the Yahoo! homepage. Yahoo! should do them a favour and give them their own names and branding so that they can thrive.

People have been wondering why Google does not link to its other products from its home page. It’s exactly this reason.

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  • Posted by Andy
    October 14, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Great post Wessel. Portals got greedy. I agree, if they’d remained as a gateway they might still have been playing a role now. But, they lost their impartiality (why search took over) and saw short-term revenue generating opportunities by forging exclusive relationships.

    They should have maintained their ‘directory’ / true portal status and use and focused on 2-3 core disciplines to differentiate the brand. As we both know! ;-)

  • Posted by Tipsausatix
    June 1, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Permalink


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