March 1999

Web Portals

A Web portal is a Web site which is intended to be your entry point to the World Wide Web. When you start your Web browser, rather than seeing a blank screen, you might choose to see a Web portal instead. The portal provides links to information either at the same site or at other sites on the Web. It may also let you type in a Web search, get a stock quote, or retrieve a local weather forecast.

A blank screen on your Web browser isn't really such a bad idea. Once you save bookmarks or favorites, which are links stored on your PC by the Web browser, you can use them to return to sites which interest you.

Nevertheless, Web portals are seen as valuable because they direct your attention to particular sites. Several companies which operate Web portals have been purchased recently. AOL bought Netscape for $9.6 billion and @Home Corp. is buying Excite for $6.7 billion. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen hopes to buy a controlling interest in Go2Net, another portal, and Barry Diller's USA Networks wants to purchase Lycos.

Some people apparently see the Web portal as comparable to a TV network. Provide content to attract viewers and then show them advertising to pay for the content.

Search Engines and Directories

Originally there were search engines, like Alta Vista, and there were Web directories, like Yahoo.

A search engine has a box to type in the words you are searching for and a button to begin the search. Behind the scenes, the search engine has an index of all the words on all the Web pages in the world (in principle). The results of a search consist of a list of Web pages which most closely match the words you entered. If you want to see a search engine in its purest form, look at Google.

Of course, there is plenty of room for differentiation here. How do you decide which pages are the best match to the search words? Do you rate the title more highly than the rest of the text on a page? How do you weight words which appear several times on a page? How frequently do you visit various sites to look for changes, and how do you find new sites? As we found in the November 1998 issue of RTG News, different search engines often yield different results.

A Web directory, on the other hand, is an attempt to organize the Web into categories. You expect to see a list of top-level categories, each leading to more detailed categories, or a list of Web sites, or both. Yahoo is the original example of a Web directory.


Search engines and Web directories are converging to create the Web portal. A typical portal, on its home page, has a list of topics. The topics link to additional pages on the same site with content, and advertising, provided by the site. Although there is always a way to search the Web, the focus is on keeping you at the portal site so you can view the ads.

Another common feature is personalization. Rather than have every visitor see the same information, you can "register" with the site and customize the home page. For example, you can see news on topics of interest to you, stock prices for your portfolio, sports scores for your favorite teams, and weather for your city.

When you personalize a portal, your Web browser stores a cookie on your PC. The cookie is a small amount of information which identifies you to a particular Web site. First you sign up and choose a user name and password. The next time you visit the site, it reads the cookie and knows who you are without asking.

Personal Portals

You don't need to spend $9.6 billion to create your own personal Web portal. There are many programs which let you design your own Web pages so you can include links of your own choosing.

Another option is to learn HTML, the language used to create Web pages. Since a Web page is just ordinary text, you can use Windows Notepad or any other text editor to write your own portal page. If you save a file with the extension htm, you can double-click the file in Windows and your browser will display the page. In other words, you don't need a Web server to display a Web page stored on your local hard disk.

You can also create links to other pages you have written. The easiest way to do that is to put all the pages in the same folder and refer to them by their file names. In HTML, a link looks like this:

<A HREF="page2.htm">My Link</A>

If this line appears on your page, the browser will display My Link, underlined. If you click on it, the browser will read and display the file page2.htm.

The Amazing Portal Generator

If you would like your own Web portal, but you don't have $9.6 billion dollars to buy one, and you don't want to learn HTML in order to write one, we still have a solution for you. RTG has a program to create Web portals. We call it the Amazing Portal Generator, or the APG.

The APG is supplied with a variety of links and buttons which you can put on your Web portal. You can also add your own links. For each new link, you type in the name of the link (the text you want on the page) and the Web address (the URL).

Buttons let you type in information and then do something with it. For example, we provide a button which will display a local weather forecast, given your ZIP code. You can put more than one copy of this button on your portal, each with a different ZIP code already filled in. Other buttons provide stock quotes and do Web searches.

The APG lets you place the links and buttons in columns on your portal page. You can add and delete items, move items around, create new columns, and so on.

You can also create a unique color scheme for your Web portal. You can choose background colors, text colors, and link colors. Several suggested color schemes are provided, and you can customize them.

When you are done, the APG writes your custom Web portal to a file on your hard disk.

Use The Portal As Your Home Page

Once you have created a Web portal, you can set your browser to display it when it starts up. Although the procedure differs from one browser to the next, they all have some way to set the "home page" or "start-up page." For example, with Netscape Navigator 3.0 choose Options, General Preferences and click the Appearance tab. In the frame labeled Startup, choose Browser Starts With: Home Page Location.

The APG will be available for download from RTG's Web site on April 5. You'll find the details here:

[12/12/2022: The APG is no longer available]

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