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These days portals are the latest fad in cyberspace. Nine of the top 10 most-trafficked Web sites are portals, or at least identify themselves that way. Venture capitalists are intrigued, while newspapers and magazines trumpet them in their pages. Across the Internet, ordinary Web sites are adding new features and declaring themselves to be _ voila! _ portals.

"Everyone wants to be a portal, and everyone is calling themselves a portal," said Chris Charron, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass. "People see the valuations of other portals and hope to boost their own values by association, saying, "I'm a portal, so I should be worth more.' "

As usual, the Internet's techies have picked a nerdy-sounding term to describe an amorphous concept. In an attempt to offer some clarity, here are answers to some of the pressing questions surrounding the murky world of portals.

What is a portal?

This is where the confusion sometimes starts, because the definition keeps expanding. But the simplest answer is this: A portal is a doorway to the Web, a site where a surfer can go as a home base before heading for other sites.

"Portals diminish the amount of flailing people have to do online," said David Marshak, a vice president at Patricia Seybold Group Inc., an Internet consulting firm in Boston.

Of course, people have been constructing jumping-off stations for years, from tiny "home pages" that link to an individual's favorite sites to the massive search engines that index millions of Web pages. But for portals, links to other sites are only a small part of the mix.

Indeed, most of the big portals started out as search engines. But they _ and their advertisers _ quickly discovered that people were using their sites frequently but didn't stay long. So, instead of just driving people to other places for information, they started offering the more popular stuff themselves. Most sites, for instance, now provide free e-mail and chat services. Or they provide information on news, sports and personal finance. And that is just for starters.

How do portals make money?

Portal sites make their money by offering advertising space. That is why it is crucial to have people not only use the sites _ but stick around as well. The longer they stay, the more advertisers will be willing to shell out money to reach them.

Can all of these portals make it?

Probably not. Charron says there are limited ad dollars to go around, and the top nine portals are attracting only about 15 percent of the traffic, with America Online and Yahoo getting more than half of that, and 59 percent of ad dollars. By 2002, portals will attract 20 percent of total traffic but get only 30 percent of ad dollars.

"It's very expensive to program and market these sites effectively," Charron said.

He expects a handful with well-known "brand" names to survive, such as Yahoo, America Online and MSN.

How can you tell the big portals apart?

It is not easy, since most portals provide the same basic services. But some have cool extras. At America Online Inc.'s paid service and its free Web-based site you can download the popular instant messenger program that lets you send notes back and forth in almost real time to friends who are also online. Instant messenger is also available from Netscape Communications Corp.'s Netcenter.

Some portals provide specialized areas. Techies will like the Web development section at Wired Digital Inc.'s HotBot, where they can learn advanced Java script and HTML, computer languages for the Web. Excite Inc. has dozens of chats on topics from Sci-Fi to pets. Both Lycos Inc. and Infoseek Corp. let people create their own personal Web pages at no charge. Snap!, a joint venture of CNET Inc. and General Electric Co.'s NBC, tends to be a little more daring than other portals. Its expansive sexual health section includes a sexual-addiction screening test and a "tips and techniques" guide.

Some portals just do the basic stuff better than others. Yahoo!'s search function wins accolades for its user-friendliness and ability to cut through the clutter. Search for "automobiles" and the daunting 1,613 sites Yahoo! calls up are divided into 17 separate sections, including classifieds, auto insurance and auctions.

The general portal space is about to get even more crowded. Walt Disney Co. and Infoseek are launching the Go Network this month. The companies have been tightlipped about the particulars but say it will combine Infoseek's search function with a cornucopia of Disney content, including ABC news and ESPN _ and, of course, a lot of shopping opportunities.

How can I make a portal more relevant to my interests?

In portal-land, the latest big thing is personalization. Most of the portals will let you choose which kinds of information you see first on the site's start page _ kind of like a newspaper that knows which subjects you want to read about on the front page. While logging your preferences the first time can be a lengthy chore, the portal will save them so that each time you log on you get the stuff you want.

My Yahoo!, a pioneer of personalization, pulls together articles on the news topics you choose, such as business, technology and politics, and displays them on your front page. Like most other portals, My Yahoo! will track your stock portfolio, local weather, the sports scores of favorite teams and keep track of addresses of friends and family. You can also program the site to get daily audio updates from a range of sources such as Fox News, National Public Radio, Comedy Central _ even Ask Dr. Science. News junkies might feel a little deprived, though: My Yahoo! gives a maximum of only three news stories per category.

Besides the standard features, Lycos pulls what it considers the top 5 percent of Web sites in categories you choose, such as news, science or kids and lets you search among these sites. This portal makes you work harder, though. Typing in its URL doesn't immediately bring you to your own front page _ you have to click on the inconspicuous "My Start Page" link. Extra steps also are required to get horoscopes and reminders of important dates.

Excite takes personalization to a high level of specificity _ it is easy to go a little crazy with preferences and end up with an unwieldy start page. It has more than 100 news categories, including such minutiae as "gambling & casino news," "machinery news" and "seniors professional golf news," though there often aren't any news stories available for some of these more offbeat categories.

What about niche portals?

While search engines have been amassing content, Web sites and online communities have been adding features such as e-mail, shopping and search engines to become "niche" portals _ basically a portal that is targeted to a certain interest.

Women, for instance, can head to iVillage Inc. or the saucy Chickclick. Both combine lively women's content with e-mail, chat and free Web pages. iVillage is more serious, targeting women balancing work and kids, while Chickclick is younger and more irreverent. The ESPN network, the mega-sports Web site, has become a sports portal of sorts with a huge amount of content, fantasy leagues and most importantly, a critical mass of eyeballs.

Do I even need a portal?

Portals certainly can make life easier. After all, when you surf the Web, you've got to start somewhere. And especially with the personalization features, portals can bring tons of content together in one convenient place. But while newbies will like the Web road map, some veteran Internet users may grow frustrated by the broad scope of some big portals. Ronan Higgins, a 28-year-old producer of You Bet Inc., an online horse-racing site, still occasionally uses Yahoo!'s and Excite's search engines but otherwise relies on a list of favorite sites.

"I tend to know exactly where I'm going," he said. "Portals try to be all things to all men, so they end up being nothing to anybody."

_ Times Technology Editor Dave Gussow contributed to this report.

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Portal Potpourri list not available electronically. Please see microfilm.

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