The Google Portal

Last week's launch of Google Finance revived the entire "Is Google A Portal" question. I previously wrote in my article on how I saw Google Finance as being closer to Google's search mission than some other products it has launched. Still, Google's got plenty of other things that firmly put them into the "stealth portal" or "Portal 2.0" category for me. But does it matter if Google's a portal? One reader recently asked me this. Maybe not; maybe so, especially given their own denials. Below, a further look at that, plus some related commentary around the web.

Let's start off with revisiting what a portal is. That was a tricky question even back in the days when everyone wanted to be a portal, kind of like people trying to say what's a Web 2.0 site today. Seriously. When portals were hot, everyone ran around saying they were a portal regardless of whatever set of features they offered. It's very similar to how everyone calls themselves Web 2.0 today without there being agreement of what what is Web 2.0.

To me, a portal is a highly trafficked site that offers a core set of features designed to allow a general audience to either start their day at the portal or return to it once if not often during their internet day. Ironically, portals can be both "sticky," in trying to keep users coming back to them, as well as living up to where they get their names, portals through which you flow to other sites.

Search is a core feature of a portal. If you don't offer robust search, you aren't a portal, in my books. Other features, including search, I'd say include:

  • Search
  • Email
  • Personalized Home Page
  • Instant Messaging / Chat
  • Free Home Pages / Blogs
  • Communities / Club Areas / Discussion Lists
  • Stock Portfolios

I'm not just making this list up because it conveniently itemizes things Google now has, as a way of proving my point that Google's a portal. These are a set of features that evolved in the late 1990s for portals. If you're a Search Engine Watch member, see my archived Portal Features Chart from 1998 which illustrates this for the major players back then.

Here's some more background on the history of portals as they related to search engines, for those trying to rub Web 2.0 dust from their eyes and remember what portals were all about:

  • Welcome To SearchEngineLand from me in 1997 looks at how search engines started to evolve portal features.
     
  • Racing to the start line from News.com in 1998 is a good overview of how these features fell under the "portal" name.
     
  • In the Web's 'Portal' Industry, A Search for a Better Word from the Wall Street Journal later in 1998 looks at how some portals tried to get away from that name because they didn't like the impression it gave of people just "passing through" them.
     
  • Portals: the new desktop? from News.com in 1999 about how we were getting away from having stuff on our desktops and instead using web apps from portals. So much for that being a 2005ish Web 2.0 thing :)
     
  • The End For Search Engines? from me in 2001 on why search engines went the portal route, why it made sense (in short, no paid links back then) and how they managed to survive when paid links allowed their most important feature -- search -- to become a money maker.
     
  • Return To The Sad Days Of More Than A Search Engine? from me in 2004 on how search engines were getting back into the portal game.

For even more background, see Portal Features category of Search Topics and older portal articles archived here. Again, these resources are for our Search Engine Watch members.

So let's say I've semi-convinced you that my list above defines a portal. Does Google have all these features? Absolutely. Search is a given as one of its portal features. Here's a rundown on other features, with how I commented about their portal natures when they came out:

Blogger
Acquired Feburary 2003
From my story, Google Buys Blogging Company - But Why?

In the 1990s, it was "home pages" that were touted as the easy way for anyone to get a presence on the web. Today, weblogs make it even easier for people to express themselves and share information, plus they are largely seen as more sophisticated than having a "home page."

The comparison to home page-hosting services is critical. When search engines transformed themselves into portals in the late 1990s, offering home page building services was one of the essential features they all grabbed. Yahoo probably made the biggest splash when it bought GeoCities in early 1999, and the move was seen as a way to capture users and keep them associated with Yahoo.

Google has long said it has no intention of becoming a portal, but so far, it's hard not to see the acquisition of Blogger as adding a portal feature in the same way that Yahoo did when it bought GeoCities. We'll almost certainly see an eventual option from the Google home page inviting visitors to create their own weblogs using Blogger. It will be discrete. It won't get in the way of searching at Google. Yet, it will have nothing to do with search, a giant departure for the company.

Note that I called blogs the sophisticated successors to personal home page tools. Nevertheless, three years later in Feb. 2006, Google also launched a Google Page Creator, a dedicated personal home page tool.

Gmail
Launched April 2004

From my story, Google Launches Gmail, Free Email Service:

Email, of course, was one of the first "sticky" features that the search engines of old added when they transformed themselves into portals. Excite jumpstarted the move, and Yahoo and Lycos quickly followed. Even AltaVista eventually offered free email in 1998, only to give it up in 2002 when its attempt to be a portal failed.

Isn't becoming a portal something Google vowed never to do? Not exactly. As I reminded recently, Google has never ruled out email or any other feature it thought it could do well.

"I won't say we won't add services, but we wouldn't put free email on our site unless we thought we could do a much better job," Google cofounder Larry Page told me back in 1999, talking then about Google's potential future directions.

That interview is especially telling, as it highlights another reason Google wanted to avoid adding portal-like features. To keep its portal partners from viewing it as a threat.

Today, with two of the three major portals gunning for it, rolling out email is a way for Google to fire back at MSN and Yahoo. Whether that might also upset Google-partner and major portal AOL remains to be seen.

Google Groups
Relaunched May 2004
From my story, Google Groups Adds Mailing Lists & Other Features, Competes With Yahoo Groups

The new free mailing list feature, while useful and welcomed, seems like another move to add another sticky portal feature.

Indeed, Yahoo Groups exists because way back in 1998, they were created (and then called Yahoo Clubs) as part of the race to add portal features and capture users. Mailing list capabilities came as part of Yahoo's later acquisition in 2000 of eGroups for $428 million in stock.

Now as Google's competitors are fighting to win users in the current search wars, Google Groups 2, like Gmail and Blogger before it, seems a way for Google to strike back at the portal features that some (see Forrester and Moreover) mistakenly assumed it would be weak on or missed buying.

What's next? I'm betting some type of financial type of service similar to Yahoo Finance. Letting people set up stock portfolios and linking these to information was one of the earliest sticky portal features around. It's a big gap at Google, in the way that the service once had a big gap in term news search.

Google has since filled that news gap, with its 2002 enhancements making it a more compelling place for newshounds to start their day -- and perhaps pulling some of those people away from Yahoo News.

Similarly, a financial service makes competitive sense. It also fits in with Google's mission. In addition, once the company goes public, it might want to offer this if only to avoid the embarrassment of employees seeking financial updates elsewhere such as at Yahoo or MSN. Currently, both are key providers of data that Google's largely unknown stock quote service uses.

Google Personalized Home Page
Launched May 2005
From my story, Google Launches Personalized Home Page:

The new personalized home page service will no doubt make many people scream "Portal!" That's because despite the name, it is essentially a "My Google" feature, similar to the My Yahoo, My MSN and other My Whatever pages that portals created so their users could access the many features they offer.

Well, Google's already been a stealth portal as I've called it for some time, offering standard portal features such as email, search and the home pages of today, blogs. The new personalized home page is merely a visible acknowledgement of this.

But the feature is also welcomed. It makes sense for Google to offer a unified page for many of its services, and the page does this without impacting the regular Google site nor getting far away from the general Google feel at all.

Google Talk
Launched August 2005
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From my story, New Google Talk Offers Instant Messaging & Voice Chat:

The entry sees Google directly competing against the much more mature clients and established user bases of competitors Yahoo and MSN, not to mention its own partner AOL. The move also opens Google up to accusations that it is way off its mission of "to organize the world's information." Heck, Google Talk doesn't even feature a box to let you search for things, as rival products from AOL, MSN and Yahoo do.

Of course, the failure to launch an instant messaging product would leave Google at a competitive disadvantage. In the end, while the company may not like the P word, but a portal Google effectively is.

Google Finance
Launched March 2006
From my story, Google Launches Google Finance

Finance areas are a staple of portals, one of the first features they all introduced to help attract and keep searchers. After all, if you've established a portfolio with a service, you're less likely to depart to someone new.

Google is allowing people to save a portfolio, a further extension of the stock tracking it already introduced for its personal home page service back in May. So this move definitely gives Google another portal feature to notch on its belt buckle -- and a feature that may help keep searchers sticking with it (though at the moment, there's no import portfolio feature to better ensure this).

But Google Finance is not just a sticky portal feature. Many searches are financial in nature. Offering a finance area is actually firmly within Google's core mission of organizing the world's information. In fact, not having offered some type of financial search was something I wrote in article for SEW members as being a big gap back in 2004:

As you can see, by the time Google Finance rolled around, whether Google was a portal or not no longer seemed a matter of debate. I felt earlier moves already made this a self-evident fact.

Still, the popular media revisited the issue. Google Finance: A Portal Play? is a recap of notable blog commentators calling Google out for a portal play. Google Evolves Into All-Purpose Web Site from the AP is another look at this (I'm quoted in that, but my comment on Google Finance being within the search mission didn't make it).

The AP article gets into how the Google mission has changed, how things it promised not to offer such as chat, horoscopes or financial advice were removed from its philosophy page not too long ago (and all of which you now get, including horoscopes). That change actually happened last August, but the latest portal addition is attracting new changes.

So is Google a portal from its official view? Back to the AP story, we're told:

The company remains committed to guiding its visitors to other Web sites with useful information. "Our motivation isn't to provide sticky services."

Are you kidding me? Or course Google's offering sticky features! What planet is this coming from, Google Mars? How can you say sending people to Gmail each day isn't sticky? How can you say offering them their own personalized home page isn't sticky? Why are you telling them to personalize it, if you aren't expecting them to come back often? Geez -- offering good web search is sticky.

Let's step higher on the Google food chain, say up to CEO Eric Schmidt. He told John Battelle back in December:

Battelle: OK, so does that mean Google?s a portal? Because if you think of it that way, as Terry Semel recently pointed out, it ranks as one of the smaller ones.

Schmidt: Well, if I can be obnoxious --

Battelle: Please.

Schmidt: You?re using a tired model of looking at corporate behavior. You?re looking at us based on market share for technologies and ideas that were invented 10 years ago. A much better way to ask that is to say, Are the things that we?re doing consistent with the mission of the company? We?re not in the portal business, we?re in the business of making all the world?s information accessible and useful.

So Google's not in the portal business. Got it? Except, with respect Eric, you are. And by the way, Google Finance is now your eighth most popular service, Hitwise says (though seeing Google America Samoa at 11th does give me pause).

Finally, who gives a darn anyway? So what if Google's a portal. One of my readers loves getting portal things from Google. Isn't it a smart business move for it to be making?

Sure, I agree. Some of these portal features are smart things to offer. There's no reason why Google shouldn't be a portal and ALSO a good search engine. My reader and I explore this more in a thread at our Search Engine Watch Forums, Who Cares If Google's A Portal? I'll quote my two main points as to why being a portal might be bad:

Why care? Two reasons:

1) You're pretending that you aren't, and that's just annoying. Be proud! Say yes, we are a portal, a portal that doesn't forget about search and one that knows we're stronger in search for our users if we stay closer to them with portal features. This pseudo "I never had portal relations with those users" just feels like you think we're stupid.

2) If they slip on search, even a little bit, they leave themselves open for accusations they've lost focus, that they've forgotten their roots.

Those are my two reasons why people might care. They can easily solve the first. The second really depends on whether they can indeed juggle all the balls well. Time will tell on that front. There's a strong argument as I've said that if they don't go in some of these directions, they might be making business mistakes that eventually could hurt them on the search front.

Agree, disagree, have comments of your own. Please share in our forum thread, Who Cares If Google's A Portal?