Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

Portal Fever

Most of us remember the portal frenzy in 2000 and 2001, as the internet bubble peaked. As Yahoo and its many competitors thrived, site after site attempted to capture user's attention by becoming a destination. Sites were flooded with Make this your homepage links as well as every possible piece of code that might keep a user from straying elsewhere. I remember it well because FellowshipChurch.com pursued a similar strategy.

Beginning with our new site launch (exactly 4 years ago this weekend) and over the next year, we added free email, weather reports, news feeds (not the RSS variety), sports scores, classified ads, movie reviews, meal menus, and stock quotes (yes, stock quotes!). The goal? To become a home away from home, a be-all-end-all portal that would make FellowshipChurch.com the only site our users would need.

Fast forward four years and the only piece left is email, and that for only six more weeks. We have learned, like most organizations, two principles of the web:

1. Only do what only you can do (or can do better than anyone else)
2. Users will search out the best tools, applications, and content wherever they can find it

Of course, there are many exceptions to this, and in fact, many users will use Yahoo Fantasy Football because they love Yahoo Mail, or Google Maps and GMail because they love Google Search, or even Microsoft PowerPoint because their used to Word and Excel. Unless you're inclined to compete in those spaces against those resources, however, most sites would do best to focus their time, talent, and resources on what they do best.

So it is with some curiosity and skepticism that I read of the recent trend in online news organizations offering branded blog/RSS readers to their users. CNET has launched Newsburst, the Guardian has NewsPoint, and the Los Angeles Times is following along.

The reaction of the blogosphere, which has mostly hailed these moves, has surprised me. Dave Winer wrote:

Aggregator software and the news business, looking forward, are very tightly bound. Every major media company is going to want to have an advantage in this area.

Steve Rubel, who first broke the CNET story, wrote:

This is the beginning of a trend where the big media launch branded RSS aggregators to make sure they retain reader loyalty.

And later, We will look back on this week as a watershed moment for RSS.

I don't share the enthusiasm. Newsreaders, by design and definition, allow you to access many different sources in a single location. If I read the New York Times, USA Today, and LA Times, why would I choose one branded newsreader over another? Even though most of these organizations will outsource these ventures, these projects will likely become under-supported and under-developed areas because they are outside of the organization's core focus and competency.

The pattern sounds all too familiar. Take a hot new technology that is quickly becoming a commodity. Add it to your site to drive traffic and increase stickiness. Sell ads to those swarming eyeballs and begin counting the money.

Portal fever.