How Low Can an Internet Doorway Go?

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In the Web world where "ease-of-use" and
"visual appeal" are bragged-about benchmarks, it's astounding that
mediocrity can be so self-satisfying.

It's even more haunting since the winners in a recent
evaluation of Internet search engine are companies with grand ambitions toward the next
Web goals: portals and online communities.

An IntelliQuest/USA Today survey found that when it
came to "ease of use" and "navigation," all of the three top search
engines (Excite, Yahoo! and Infoseek) befuddled one in five users.

And that's where they came in best! An eerily
consistent -- but underwhelming -- 80 percent of respondents (give or take 1 percent) said
that all three search sites were easy to use. This was among Webheads who use these search
engines regularly!

As for "entertainment value," Excite appealed to
about 65 percent of users, while Yahoo! and Infoseek contributed to the pleasure of merely
half of their customers. As for "visual appeal," all three of the search engines
fell in the 64 percent to 71 percent bracket.

Compared to those levels of satisfaction, cable looks like
a real crowd pleaser.

Although this study didn't delve into ongoing
opinions, other research suggests that many Web users are kvetching that the visual
quality of all these search sites is deteriorating. In part, that stems from the clutter
and complexity, thanks largely to greedy strategies for putting more revenue-generating
elements upfront on these sites.

Lycos -- another search engine provider -- recently allied
with Juno, which says it has 5.5 million users for its free e-mail service. Together, the
companies will create yet another portal-oriented Web package, aimed at bringing the Juno
e-mailers onto the Web.

The proliferating portals and communities are becoming a
major factor in the interactive package.

For several years, Web visionaries have expounded on the
merits of online communities -- sort of glorified affinity groups that come to a cybersite
to chat, share ideas and look up targeted information.

The specificity of sites would create friendships, with
users trading tips and recommendations -- even in their anonymity, supporters promised.
Portals are the tool to snag users for sites and create such communities.

Of course, as America Online has demonstrated, a community
may be little more than a paid membership that brings customers to a portal that
aggregates an adequate (but not mind-numbing) array of content and commerce.

AOL's success as a portal and community-builder has
brought more players into cyberspace.

The imagined value of such portals is behind NBC's
investment in CNET, which has been trying to expand its SNAP! portal for more than a year.

Disney's partial acquisition of Infoseek (prompting a
Mickey Mouse-influenced suggestion that it be renamed "Infosqueak") adds to the
current belief that these portal aggregation sites are the next wave of attracting
Webheads into virtual communities.

Further contributing to these expectations are the
emergence of the Web's structured communities, such as the ones created by The Mining
Co.

Trying to move beyond mere search engines and paid portal
listings, these interactive sites offer human and/or virtual guides to direct users toward
appropriate Web sites that match their interests.

These glorified search engines -- laden with their own
complexities and visual clutter -- are commercial versions of a virtual town square,
trying to bring order to an inherent cacophony.

Nobody said it would be easy, and it's not yet clear
whether high-speed access will make e-community participation more appealing, or just
faster and more perplexing.

The basic premise of communities -- like the search engines
-- may be flawed as it applies to cyberspace. First of all, the commitment of many users
to these portals and communities will be fleeting, little more than a soon-forgotten
bookmark.

NBC's newly launched on-air campaign to send viewers
to SNAP! may work, but the redesigned portal had better be snappy to keep them coming
back, especially with so many other portals to choose from.

Moreover, the newly minted communities may be a faddish way
for Web users to claim a relationship (one of how many?) that suits today's interests
until another appetite takes precedence tomorrow.

Experience has also shown that communities pick up and move
to another cybersite when popular leaders are lured elsewhere. In the world of escalating
Internet technology and flexible

pricing, some communities are likely to be rootless for a
long time.

Hence, today's frustration with Web search engines and
portals -- as suggested by the USAToday survey -- may offer a long-lasting
lesson for high-speed content designers and carriers: Eschew obfuscation.

More specifically, don't succumb to the overwhelming
capacity to cram more revenue-producing content on the front page. It's tempting to
put all the good stuff up front, but if the overload turns away customers, the entire
community could be lost.

How low can quality go? All the way out the front door.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen knocks on many
cyber-portals before being let into a virtual community
.

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