The Portal Strategy Is Dead

I say it is dead but what I really mean is that the game is over. For many Internet users there is only one portal: Google. There were really only two candidates for the job, based on differing philosophies: Google and Yahoo. Yahoo built its model on categorization, banking on the idea that the Internet may not have been like newspapers, but it was like magazines: not arranged on geography but on subject matter.

It was a reasonable assumption, but breaks down because of the effort required for categorization and cross-referencing, as well as the sheer number of categories and subcategories. Google made its bet on keywords and indexing, eschewing discrete categories. Ultimately I think it is fair to say that this model has mostly triumphed.

So when I look at the fight between Google and the Associated Press, it's hard not to see the perspective of the AP and its subscriber/contributer newspapers as a throwback to the early days of the World Wide Web.

Everybody proclaimed that it was a revolution; it would change everything. No longer would freedom of the press belong only to those who owned one; the hegemony of large media companies would be forever broken, and censorship would henceforth be impossible.

When that failed to happen within a few short years, the web was declared a failure; an incremental improvement in technology that posed no threat to Business As Usual.

Both analyses were right and both were wrong, just at different times.

One of the first answers to the question of how traditional media models would cope with the World Wide Web was the so-called "portal strategy". This came from the setting which nearly all browsers have, the "home page"-- the page that the browser opens upon default when the program is started. It was reasonable to assume that many people would never change this, and that that site would be the jumping-off point for how a user explored the Internet, and so sites and search engines did their best to become the "home page". Big sites made deals with browser developers. Some developed their own browsers or their own customized versions of browsers. Some embedded scripts in their pages to suggest to users that they alter their browser settings, changing the current page to be the "home page".

Search engines and portals like Google and Yahoo were early entrants into this. Newspapers were another. They presumed that the thing to do, especially if they were the paper of record for their geographical area, was to become the "home page" for their readers in that geographical area, and that would preserve their position in the market and their business model.

It didn't work. It couldn't have worked.

For the portals like Yahoo, broken down by subject matter, it made little sense. The equivalent of a bibliography, they could only help you find what you were looking for if you already knew what it was and where to find it.

For newspapers, there was little reader incentive to do so. The appeal of the Internet was the quick and easy availability of content that was previously unavailable. This does not apply to content from the local paper. Newspaper websites in many cases suffered in comparison to their print editions: smaller screens, long load times, inconvenient and annoying advertising content.

So it's very revealing to see comments like this, from the Slashdot comments about the abovementioned Google-AP fight:

The president of the internet division of the newspaper conglomerate I work for actually said this in response to a manager suggesting working more closely with Google to improve SEO: "We don't want users to search for our site. We need to focus on the users who are on our site and make it easier for them to find the content they want via our internal search."

The executive in question is cleaving to the portal model. They want primacy for their site in the relationship with the reader. They do not want the reader to be mediated through Google's search engine, or through its news aggregation service. They cannot have this. There is no benefit in that model for anyone but the newspaper. Readers do not want it. The sites that are capable of delivering readers, because they appeal to a broader audience than the general-interest newspaper that is tied to a particular limited geographic area, are sites like Google. Google is delivering eyeballs to the site, but this executive doesn't want them. He'd prefer that they come directly to the site and stay there. Rather than accept readers from Google-- for which Google is not charging him-- he very likely wants, as the Associated Press wants, for Google to pay for the content summaries it uses in its aggregating and indexing-- summaries Google uses to deliver readers to the paper, more readers than the paper is capable of attracting itself.

It is hard for the newspapers to give up their aspirations of primacy in the relationship between content producer and content consumer. Unfortunately for them, not only is the decision not theirs, but it has already been made.