Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Portals

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 04, 1999

Posted to NewsTrolls January 5, 1999

Nobody knows exactly how many pages there are on the world wide web. But with the number in the hundreds of millions, or possibly billions, it makes finding that one page on restaurants in Sydney rather hard to find. Thus the rise of the portal site, your one-stop guide to all that's good on the web.

Today's portal aims to be much more than a web directory. It is the ambition of portal designers to make their site your home page. Thus, even if you pass through the portal on the way to another site, you'll pass through a lot, looking at an advertisement each time you view the page.

The grandfather of them all is, of course, Yahoo. Partly by luck, partly by design, and mostly by being first in what has become a crowded field, Yahoo has become the template for the contemporary portal. Indeed, from portal to portal, there is little to distinguish one entry from another.

How to build a portal

Assemble the following:

  • Search Engine - there's no point building one; use an established service such as Alta Vista, Inktomi, or Excite
  • Category Index - in two columns, sixteen major category headings (such as Art, Business, or Education), and under each, in small type, subcategories
  • News Column - on the right hand side, list some of the recent top stories. Your own page for that story will have a headline and perhaps some text, and of course, links to that story as written by CNN, NY Times, or MSNBC
  • Stock Quotes - link from the top banner to a stocks page. Connect to a stock reporting service such as Blomberg. Post a Dow Jones graph and a search for specific stocks
  • Weather - allow the user to specify a zip code (if you are really adventerous, try international weather). Link to a standard weather service such as Weatherlabs
  • My :
    • Personal Pages - allow users to create their own personalized page, following a standard template
    • Sorted display - allow users to select news categories for display on their My page
    • Email - allow users to create their own email address with your domain name
  • Chat (optional) - if you have the bandwidth, provide chat rooms
  • Message Boards - provide topic-based message boards
The rise of portal sites has created a new internet game: collecting email addresses. I have several dozen email addresses already, and about once every six months or so I might actually check all the mail boxes.

Portals in Action

Let's look at the portal template in action. As a public service (because portal sites tend not to list each other), here is a list of some of the more popular portal sites on the web:

  • Americal Online (AOL) - five column layout (!). Medium speed.
  • Alta Vista - yellow and blue Yahoo-standard motif. Medium.
  • Excite - blue and white motif. Fast.
  • GeoCities - known mostly as a home page depot, Geocities's home page is a yellow and blue Yahoo-standard. Medium.
  • Open Directory Project - formerly called GnuHoo. Entries submitted by volunteers. Now a part of the Mozilla project. Blue and white Yahoo motif. Medium.
  • HotBot - lime green and blue Yahoo motif. Fast.
  • Infoseek - blue and gray Yahoo modif. News column is on the left - how odd! Fast.
  • Lycos - blue and gray motif, no subcategories (*pout*). Fast.
  • The Mining Company - features human 'guides' who write content for each of the category pages. Fast.
  • MSN - double-blue Yahoo-standard motif. Medium.
  • Netscape - teal and gray Yahoo-standard motif. Link from Netscape browser bar. Medium.
  • Planet Direct - blue and white Yahoo-standard, but with news front and center. Medium.
  • Snap - blue and grey Yahoo-standard motif. Strong local content. Fast.
  • Starting Point - nice coloured table layout, categories not listed in columns (!). Very fast.
  • Tripod - odd multi-colour Yahoo motif. Medium
  • World Net - many animated images, ugly advertising frame scross the bottom. Fast.
  • Yahoo - standard blue and gray Yahoo motif. Fast.


Why the lack of imagination? There are two reasons:

  1. The current model for portal sites represents the range of what can be done on the internet. beyond home pages, news, discussion and chat, there isn't much else that the internet can do. So portals tend to resemble each other.
  2. The current selection of portal resources represnts the comfortable and familiar. People don't want their news delievered by the local Goth Cult. People prefer names they recognize, like CNN or the New York Times.
Similarly, there is not a lot you can do with the design of a portal page. Most users are looking at a standard computer screen. Text can only be so small, which means only a certain amount can fit on a screen. That means short, snappy category names, headline news only, and a top banner bar with links to services.

Building the NewsTrolls Portal

What you need in order to build a good portal is a good database engine. We at NewsTrolls do not have a good database engine, so we've decided to fudge a bit. Amazing what a few simple PERL scripts will do.

The heart of the portal is the list of links. These links must then be sorted by category. Then, when the user clicks on the appropriate category page, the list of links corresponding to that category will be displayed. Thus, for basic input, what we need is a link URL, a title, and a category selection. I put this into an interface page here.

But what should the categories be? We could take the easy way out and follow the standard Yahoo list of categories. But why duplicate that which has already been created. Thus, we have chosen to employ categories more appropriate to Newstrolls. When you go to the main page, you'll see what we mean.

The main page is simple. Follow the Yahoo format, linking to each category. The standard portal page has major categories and subcategories. The subcategory listings are created by making each subcategory page a listing under the main category. Also on the main page we will need a link to portal services, such as discussion, chat, and personal home pages. These are already newsTroll features, so we simply create the links. The main page is here.

We decided to take a pass on the weather and the horoscopes.

Finally, we need display engine and a template for the category pages. The template is here. The display engine is a simple PERL script which displays the appropriate list entries into the template.

For further reading

Here are some articles about portals:

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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