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  •   Any Portal in a Storm?
    By Michael Tedeschi
    Special to The Washington Post
    March 26, 1999
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    Portal sites get lots of attention in the news media – mostly due to their astronomical stock-market valuations. But do their services warrant making some of them as pricey as General Electric? We looked at seven well-known sites – Yahoo,, Lycos, Excite, Netscape, MSN, and AltaVista – to find out if they're worth all the hype. All of these places offer Net-search capabilities for Web pages, people and businesses, plus free e-mail – perhaps their most important feature, since you can access these accounts from any Web-enabled computer. In addition most invite you to customize your page to include only topics that interest you (note that Lycos, Netscape and Yahoo make you bookmark a complicated address or sign in from their generic front page; you can't waltz directly into your personal Web treehouse). Here are the best, and worst, points of each site: – basically, Infoseek after its acquisition by Disney – is the newest of the portal sites and offers one of the slickest layouts. Clickable tabs on your customized page link to the site's areas (Centers, Web Directories, Communities, and Shop) without taking up much real estate, which leaves space for customized news, financial info and weather updates in the bottom chunk of the page. The site also offers space for you to post a personal Web page, and a "Go.Guardian" option attempts to keep kid-unfriendly stuff from popping up in Web searches.
    Compaq's AltaVista is one of the oldest search engines, but it's hardly in the portal race. Customization options are hidden (except for owners of Compaq PCs, who get a shortcut to them) and there are few extras compared to the others. But it is uncluttered, making it quick to show up in your browser's window – handy if, say, you just want to find something on the Web.
    MSN, Microsoft's entry in this competition, delivers the usual local weather, news and stock quotes, plus the popular Hotmail free-mail service. Microsoft has agreements with multiple "content providers" in every topic area, so you can get your news from MSNBC, Fox, the New York Times or all three. The major drawback here is the cluttering of the page with links for purchasing goods and services.
    The venerable Yahoo! directory site keeps adding features, widgets and services to its long-running My Yahoo offering – so many that it's a good thing you can have multiple pages for your interests. With everything from a calendar to TV listings available, the pages can quickly get cluttered, even though the site is pretty light on advertising.
    Excite's portal lets you customize the bottom section of the page with regularly updated news-sports-business information, as well as such features as a reminders list, while the top portion is reserved for Excite's search function and links to various slices of this site. Much of this content is entertainment-related stuff, which can make it all seem a bit lightweight.
    Lycos's Personal Guide allows you to place news and access to services and features in blocks wherever you want on your page (but access to the Lycos search engine stays at the top). Or pages, as you can have more than one customized stop at Lycos – which is good, given the number of choices. You can set up a personal Web page at the Tripod and Angelfire branches of Lycos. (Why two free Web-space services? Who knows?)
    My Netscape, part of the company's Netcenter effort, seems to pretty much parallel My Yahoo in its feature and name. Or is it the other way around? It's got the requisite customizability, news, sports and stock feeds, free e-mail and search features. Use a current version of Netscape's browser and you gain access to a keyword-search facility at the site, which plumbs a database for addresses to match plain English inputs ("The Washington Post" instead of "").

    So are the portal sites places you'd want to stay for extended periods of time? For a novice Web surfer the answer is a qualified maybe; for an experienced user, the answer is an unqualified, unconditional no.

    A newcomer to the Net can find that a site cutting through the clutter and confusion by clustering news, e-mail, stock quotes, shopping and chat rooms can be a relief. But this convenience comes at the cost of being constantly steered to whoever's paying the most for link placement. In addition, customized pages get more cluttered as you add more items to them, cutting down on the at-a-glance utility they're supposed to provide.

    After some time on the Web, the portals' limitations become glaring – for instance, you realize that the headlines aren't as detailed as on all-news sites and the stock-quote features don't offer the background data you can find at various financial sites. A good set of bookmarks, however, can replace a portal site with a far superior set of resources for an experienced user – and experience is only a few more mouse clicks away.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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