Unofficially obsessed with Google.


Why to stop asking "Is Google a Portal?"

3/25/2006 10:21:00 PM
Any time it releases a product that makes information access more comprehensive, more meta, or more personalized, Google gets labeled as a portal-in-progress. The recent news of Google Finance, with its practical applications, channel functionality, and similarity to the portal offerings of the early 2000's, has added to this Google-as-portal discussion with new noise.

Most articles frame these discussions with hesitant interrogatives: "Is Google already a portal?" "Google Finance: A Portal Play?" and uncertain suggestions: "Google Finance Sparks Portal Talk". Such discussion isn't new; Google has been a "suspected portal" for years now. And overall, the tone of these articles makes it sound like portals are a scary thing that Google wants no part in. With all the disagreement over whether or not Google is a portal, what's really going on here?

1. "Portal" is a sloppy word.
2. The portal, as we know it, is dead.


1. "Portal" is a sloppy word.

Here are a bunch of ways that portals have been described. They're all somewhat valid, and they're all somewhat inapplicable to what Google's end design seems to be. Take a look:

A start page
The page you set as your homepage, and most likely the one you use to jump to most of your web activities. Millions of people have Google.com as their initital browsing turf, so this must not be it...

A directory
A meta- or super- site that lists "all" other sites by topic, made most relevant in the days before search could retrieve more specific channels of information.

A collection of standard web tools in one place
A site with its own brands of email, news, search, weather, homepages, etc all neatly collected for its users. AOL's channels are the perfect portal in this sense. But Google's got its own "channels." So this must not be the key to portaldom...

A content aggregator
A site that combs the web for info on specific topics (though not through rigid categories) and displays it for your clicking fun. All content links lead to external sites. Google News anyone? In fact, Google's information retrieval system is one giant conglomeration of aggregation!

A personalized page
A page that customizes its offerings to your selections or surfing habits has been called a personalized portal. This peaked with the "my" services: MyYahoo, MyExcite, MyAOL, etc. But Google's already got this: Personalized Homepages at google.com/ig. Your Google account now lets you do all kinds of things tailored to your preferences: write email, blog your thoughts, make homepages, track stock portfolios, manage your website, and even make money!

A content aggregator + content provider
A step above a content aggregator is the one that adds its own content into the mix. Yahoo! is precisely such a site. This is, to me, one of the most interesting areas to project in Google's future. Will there ever be content provided? I would not count it out, but this is not part of Google's mission statement, "to organize the world's information." Organizaton neither implies nor requires creation. The new Google Finance is said to tiptoe into this territory with its group discussion moderators and highly specific company profile descriptions. I say that ain't content. Content is what's made when you hire salaried people to write information you can't find anywhere else. But if a portal is a way of getting somewhere, then should the portal's content--what it says--even matter?

A search/directory page strewn with links and ads
For those who say Google is not a portal just because it isn't messy like Yahoo, should clutter really be the defining characteristic in web terminology (portal or other) that implies information organization?

A browser's default start page
This is certainly a specific, outdated definition of a portal. But it's the idea that when you opened Netscape or AOL you were greeted by a page that Netscape or AOL had created with links and search fields that it felt would serve your browsing needs. When GBrowser talks were loud, Google Portal talks were just as vociferous. But adding a browser into the mix would probably not answer "Is Google a portal?"

A gateway to a collection of specialized information
FirstGov is an example of a site that claims to provide anything and everything you need to know about a certain topic. It's basically a search + directory for a specific category of information. Examples of Google's contribution to these specialized information sites are its News and Finance searches.

A site that labels itself a "portal"
Obvious. It really seems that the world will only agree that Google is a portal if Google steps up and calls itself one. But the company has no plans to release "Google Portal" and it will never activate the subdomain or directory portal.google.com or google.com/portal. So, if they're just waiting for a product release under the monicker "Google Portal," my hunch is, it ain't comin'. (For the record, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt has firmly denied "plans to become a portal.")

In summary: The reason no one can agree on whether or not Google is a portal, is that the word portal is just a sloppy description for services that Google already provides. Google (and many other companies) are pushing beyond portals.

2. The portal, as we know it, is dead.

In the internet sense, a portal was introduced as a way for net users to find information when the path to that information was otherwise unclear. The internet was in toddler phase and its users wanted to find the weather report without having to know URL's to get it. So a portal with links to everything, including weather, was the answer for that generation of the internet. As netizens grow increasingly more aware of the paths to the information they desire, then the idea of providing a page for people who don't know what's going on is increasingly of less use. Knowing URL's is much more commonplace than it used to be and the pre-eminence of search and specialized information hunting sites has made wading through hierarchies of links and pages of unrelated content a dead idea.

Jeremy Zawodny really poked at the endangered state of the portal when he said that the question isn't really whether or not Google will become a portal (assuming the collective conscious thinks it's not one yet), the question is what will the next generation portal look like? The comments on his thoughts include notes about discovery as the next great portal/path. Sites like Amazon use discovery to show you products that you may not have searched for but that probably relate to your interests. Google's related content tests show that the incorporation of discovery process into Google's many operations is not far away. Further speculations (as shown in highly customizable homepage interfaces like protopages and pageflakes) are that personalization at the individual's own discretion is also where the future of the "portal" is. In that sense, it's no longer a gateway, but instead a user's own guide map, written and discovered by themselves rather than forged by a company's static webpage vision for what information is interesting. We're leaving the days of company-forged content, and beginning to forge our own.

So whether or not Google releases channels for every type of information and whether or not Google collects all of these channels all on one page (Google.com only links to a few) with perfect personalization (the uber-Google Personalized Homepage), the concept of a portal is poorly defined and outdated. And so is trying to fit Google into it.

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