Portals are a great way to gather all of your company's services into one easily accessible place. Danny Bradbury takes a look at what's on offer
Since companies recognised the link between e-commerce and content on the Internet, Web portals have become increasingly popular. The term 'portal' was relatively new back in the mid-to-late 1990s, but it has developed to become a huge market for software development tools vendors and customers alike. In short, a Web portal is much more than a directory, it is a collection of Internet resources distilled into a single, easily accessible place.
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In the early days, the concept of a Web portal was limited to the large search engines like Excite, Yahoo and Lycos, all of which expanded to offer news, stock quotes, horoscopes and shopping services. They re-invented themselves as one-stop-shop entrances onto the Net, and their main purpose was to grab loyal customers for advertising purposes. These days, the market has opened up for other companies to build their own portals.
Keep coming back
Companies create portals for two reasons. First, they want to keep customers coming back to their website by providing new, exciting content. Second, they want to sell things online. Consequently, the resources that you include on your portal site break down into three main areas: general content, personalised content and company-specific content.
Under the banner of general content you can include news, weather, stock quotes and horoscopes as the search-engine portals do. Other types of general content include everything from dictionaries and online thesauri through to search engines.
Personalised content is separated from company-specific content because it consists of services that hold personal data about the end-user online. While general content can often be customised to suit individuals' interests, true personalised content includes richer personal data to support services such as personal online calendars, photo albums, personal online storage space (essentially virtual hard drives online), and free email accounts. Such content is becoming increasingly prevalent in portal environments.
This is all well and good, but everyone is doing it and it's more of a me-too play than a truly innovative offering. Nevertheless, to compete in the one-size-fits-all portal market, it's well worth considering such services as part of your service proposition. The real growth area, however - and the part of the portal that will deliver the payoff for your business - is the company-specific area. This part of the site will enable your customers to hook into your products and services after they have been dragged back to your site by the breadth of lower-value information and services that you offer.
Such services could include everything from product descriptions, images and availability information, product ordering and order tracking services, through to pre- and post-sales support. The latter could be provided in the form of frequently asked questions and online chat sessions with staff.
There are many options for companies wishing to pull various back-end services into a Web-based portal environment. Irish company Iona, for example, offers an enterprise portal development suite encompassing back-end middleware to hook the portal into your legacy systems.
Oracle also produces enterprise portal development software in its 9i Application Server. It lets companies integrate applications into their portals, and could be used to Web-enable anything that would be useful to your users. This would enable you to build business-to-business functionality into your portals. You could provide single-sign-on capabilities for trusted corporate partners who would then be able to access groups of relevant applications within your organisation, for example. The inclusion of collaborative applications such as threaded discussions would also be useful in certain B2B and B2C scenarios.
Portals promise to revolutionise your Web presence by giving customers and business partners an easily accessible set of resources in a single place, but when you implement it, make sure that it's maintainable. Your content is only as good as your content management strategy, and your portal-based applications have to be reliable and easy to use.
While the rise of company-specific information in the portal market is relatively immature, it's old and wrinkly compared to the fledgling mobile portal market. Market research company Analysis has conducted research into the likely revenues to be gained from portals designed for WAP-enabled phones and PDAs.
The revenue opportunities for such portals are similar to those for conventional Web portals, with one important exception - traffic sharing. The expensive nature of cellular bandwidth (compared to dirt cheap wireline bandwidth) means that portal providers could cut deals with carriers to take revenues based on the traffic hitting their site over cellular networks.