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IQ News: Analysis - Selling Simplicity

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A new generation of portals feels less is more for users.
Back in the training-wheel years of the Internet, pioneering Web directory Yahoo! and proprietary online service America Online both shared veritable monopolies on the eyes of newbies entering the Internet. But as newbies found their bearings, they graduated from the virtual hand-holding of people-powered indexes to bot-powered searches, as a new Web-savvy class hungered for more.
Early Web surfers can recall the thrill of extracting millions of returns for any given term on search engines like AltaVista or HotBot. It didn't matter whether or not links led to anything valuable. What mattered was that those million-plus links existed at all, and that we mere mortals were able to tame the wild Internet beast and capture its knowledge.
But battle fatigue soon set in. Only the most diligent Web surfers were willing to sift through the ever-increasing morass of online junk. As search engines morphed into portals, and then into specialized vertical portals, offering everything from horoscopes to stock charts, the task of indexing and searching the Web became unglamorous.
The tide, it seems, may be turning Web users back to kinder, gentler search sites, and away from the superfluous offerings of mega-portals. At least that's the hope of a handful of sites looking to focus their attention on online search services. Those sites, which include the recently renamed About.com, search syndicator Looksmart and 4Anything.com, are aiming to make elegantly simple searching a satisfying part of the online experience.
"There's no question that search and directory [services] are breaking down in terms of utility," says Chris Charron, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "The mass market expects more intuition, more useful content in the search results, and more utility from a Web site's search function."
"It's really easy to make a big directory," observes Scott Kurnit, founder and CEO of New York-based About.com, the people-powered network of affinity-based Web sites that until last month was known as MiningCo.com. "But he or she who makes it easier, ultimately is going to win. Less is really more."
To be sure, users tired of the extraneous geegaws and commodity offerings from big portals may have encouraged the success of smaller Net companies looking to capture not only user mindshare, but advertising revenue, in a race thus far dominated by the likes of mega-portals such as Yahoo! and AOL.
"Yahoo! who?" jokes Kurnit. "When we started, we looked at Yahoo! and we said, ™How do we [do it] 10 times better?'" While hardly a threat to Yahoo!, About.com updated the superportal's formula by putting a face to the often anonymous world of Web indexing. The site uses people as "guides" to run and maintain its network of 650 topic-specific communities.
For Vince Schiavone, the founder and CEO of Wayne, Pa.-based 4Anything.com, the notion of an online horizontal network of vertical sites is the future, today. Like About.com's people-guided model, Schiavone also boasts that 4Anything.com offers hand-picked sites and content, but he believes the ability to brand each individual affinity-site makes 4Anything.com's offerings much more marketable. And like About.com, which quietly gobbled up domains with the word "about," Schiavone has acquired nearly 2,500 URLs with the "4" prefix, with some notable, racier exceptions. Still, Schiavone cautions that the next wave of network portals can fall prey to excess if not carefully edited and managed, using a combination of humans and technology.
"As the Net grows, it grows disproportionately," says Schiavone. "There's more garbage than there is good stuff. There's a sales axiom: too many choices create inaction."
Kurnit agrees that too much of a good thing may simply be too much, leading to consumer confusion and overload. "The problem with first generation portals is that they took a search box and then surrounded it with ... news, stocks, sports, weather. All good stuff," he says. "But the core product is inferior and the stuff they wrapped around it is commodity. So what are they? Their future as products, to me, is questionable."
Despite a huge lead by major portals over mid-tier challengers - Media Metrix reported almost 32 million visitors to Yahoo! in April, while About.com attracted 5.4 million, Looksmart 4.2 million and 4Anything garnered a meager 630,000 visitors - many feel there is room to improve functionality.
"It was almost as if the original portals felt like they got it right, so nothing else needed to be done," says Tracey Ellery, co-founder of San Francisco-based search site Looksmart. "From our perspective, nothing is further from the truth. We still see major consumer dissatisfaction in this area."
Ellery says that consumers are frustrated by the unnecessary complexity in searching the Web. Looksmart, with its corps of editors, filters through the Web to find the best of the best, she says. Yahoo!, too, was built by human editors. Does Ellery worry about Looksmart falling into the same trap of information overload?
"Two years ago the Holy Grail was size, now it's quality," she claims. "We're still very committed to creating a very large but very high quality index. The way in which we do that is not necessarily adding everything in the known universe in a particular category, but getting very broad and getting very granular."
People-powered directories are a selling-point now, but as these sites grow they may find themselves going "back to the future." Charron, for one, sees them becoming attractive purchases for the very portals upon which they had hoped to improve.
"People-generated directories will play a role, but they're likely to be assimilated into large, broad-based consumer sites, the AOLs and the Yahoo!s of the world," says Charron. "I don't think a site can survive on its own, purely on people-generated search and directory."
Ellery thinks that's doomsday hype, since she believes users need more from directories than just the extras that portals provide.
"Twelve months ago, if you were in a focus group and you asked people to rate the quality of search engines, the ones that won were the ones that returned the most results," says Ellery. "Size was the benchmark of whether a product was good. And now it's completely the opposite. The more results given, the more negative people feel about the product."
While the broad-based portals will attract the majority of mainstream traffic and subsequently the lion's share of ad revenue, says Charron, it's the vertical portals that will attract advertisers looking to better target their messages to more qualified, potential customers.
Kurnit, however, believes that a pure vertical portal by its nature is too limited to appeal to users' changing interests. "People want a commonality of experience as their interests change," he says.
Some search sites say they are unencumbered by the economic pressures they feel limit larger portals. "A number of search engines now are totally dependent on their economic model that ™more is more,'" says Schiavone. "More is just more money. There's an advantage in coming second-to-market and being able to leapfrog over the originals. We don't pretend to be economically as powerful - it's more thought-leader vs. economic powerhouse."
It's David.com vs. Goliath.com, all over again. ¡