Toot your horn, and increase traffic to your Web site with portals

Portal is the buzzword of the moment, just as push was last summer.


Chances are, the term will lose its panache as fast as push did. But the idea of
building a popular entry point for important information will survive and thrive.


The fact that portals have risen to the top of the collective Internet consciousness
marks an evolution in our understanding of how people use and navigate the Internet.


Popular portals have become the top influencers of network traffic, and a popular
portal site assures the growth of a Net service.


Many people think of search engines when they think of portals. But http://www.yahoo.com, the Internet’s most popular
portal, is more a directory than a search interface, though the site has powerful search
tools.


The portal at http://www.netscape.com became a
top site simply because it’s the default home page setting for Netscape
Communications Corp. browsers.


To make sure this traffic continues, Netscape has changed its look from that of a
corporate marketing page to the Netcenter, which mimics the look of http://www.lycos.com.


This is an important trend. Software vendors are starting to mesh their products with
their portals. Microsoft Corp.’s http://www.start.com
site, for example, has special features that work only with Internet Explorer. The
combination conveys an advantage over standalone players.


If you want to build traffic to your agency’s Web site, capitalize on the portal
concept and tout your own custom applications or databases.


First, look at who’s already doing this in the government.


The top government portal sites are FedWorld at http://www.fedworld.gov,
the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/ and the
White House at http://www.whitehouse.gov.


Of these, FedWorld comes closest to a true portal, because it reaches farthest beyond
its own servers.


That’s the key to playing the portal game: Identify niches and make it easy for
people to find the specific thing they want. The Government Information Locator
Service at http://www.gils.gov is not exploiting its
full potential.


Visitors can enter search terms, but the results don’t tell much without clicking
through to see full files.


You can browse records by agency but not by subject.


GILS could be a better government Web portal if its front page highlighted the vast
content on the site.


Perhaps your agency doesn’t do work on the scale of FedWorld or GILS. But the
precedent is clear. Your agency has a mission, and its resources should dovetail with that
mission. Helping people discover what’s available by category in your agency, in the
government and elsewhere, is a huge task with big rewards for those who tackle it.


So how do you establish a search engine that reaches beyond your own site? I’m
involved in a project to turn an internal search interface into a miniature search engine
that extends across about 100 sites.


The plan is to use the Search ’97 Developer Kit from Verity Inc. of Sunnyvale,
Calif., to customize a spider that queries external sites at night, when traffic is low.
We can control where it starts, how many levels deep it looks before dropping a path and
what the domain boundaries are. The tool indexes what it has found with keywords and
pointers back to individual files. For search purposes, we can tell the tool what zones,
or Hypertext Markup Language-tagged areas, to target for queries in each index.


The basic zone is everything within the <html> <f>/html<f> tags. But
we might want to look only at titles or metatags instead.


The idea is not to compete with giant search engines such as Lycos or AltaVista, but to
target a smaller search engine specifically to visitors’ needs—one that will
find 20 perfect hits instead of 10,000 low-quality hits. Next, an analyst will study
the pointers created by the spider, feeding the best of them into 40 category-specific
link pages.


The combination of search and preset directory pages will boost traffic.  


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Business Information Inc. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.

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