Portals in the Cyberstorm
by Clark L. and Kathryn H. Kidd

The portal sites are always coming up with new features that will attract you or make you stay.

Some of you may remember your first experience sitting down at a computer that was connected to the World Wide Web. Unlike a television program or a computer game, there was nothing on the screen to really reach out and pull you in. Your first reaction was probably “Okay, now what do I do?” You were sitting on top of a mountain of useful information, but you weren’t sure where and how to start digging. A member of a primitive tribe that had been dropped in the middle of the New York Public Library wouldn’t have been any more out of place.

There are a couple of tools that are designed to help you navigate through the jungle of the web – search engines and portals. Let’s limit the scope of today’s discussion to portals, and perhaps we can examine search engines in a future column.

A Portal is a Home Base
The idea of a portal is to give you a common starting place for your navigation of the web – kind of a home base, if you will. Portals are sometimes called index sites, because they try and categorize all of the content of the web into one index. Think of the index at the back of a book. You may look there first, and let it refer you to a specific page within the book. Portals usually present you with an index of broad general categories, allow you to select the category of interest, and then let you search deeper and deeper down that particular branch of the index tree.

One of the first portal sites was Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com), which was started by a couple of Stanford University students way back in 1994 (an eternity ago in Internet time). They started it as a hobby, simply as a way to keep track of their favorite locations. Their involvement with Yahoo! turned from a hobby to a business, and made them very wealthy in the process.

Most portal sites look similar, so let’s start with Yahoo! to give you an example of how it works. When you visit the first page, you will see many broad categories that can be selected. The last time we visited, we saw the following major subject categories: Arts & Humanities, Business & Economy, Computers & Internet, Education, Entertainment, Government, Health, Recreation & Sports, Reference, Regional, Science, Social Science, and Society & Culture.

Swimming through the Categories
Upon selecting one of the categories listed above, you will then be presented with the next index level pertaining to the category you chose. For example, assume you selected the major category of Science. Under that category, you would then be shown sub-categories such as: Acoustics (56), Agriculture (1744), Alternative (954), Amateur Science (18), Animals, Insects, and [email protected], Anthropology and [email protected], Artificial Life (116), Ask an Expert (21), Astronomy (2361), Aviation and Aeronautics (229). That’s quite a few, and those are just the ones starting with “A.”

The numbers in parentheses behind each sub-category show the number of different web sites that will be listed if you select that sub-category. For example, you will find 2,361 web sites that deal with Astronomy. The names that end with an “at” sign (@) indicate there will be even more specific sub-categories if you select that particular entry.

From this example, you will see that you could spend many years of your life trying to visit all the sites connected to a portal. Even when you visited all the sites, new sites are being created so fast that you would have to start all over again to see the ones you missed the first time. Some portals try to assist you in your search by also showing a list of the most popular sites within a specific sub-category. This can be done by keeping track of the most popular sites visited by past users, or it may contain a list of particularly useful sites maintained by the managers of the portal.

It used to be that portal sites contained nothing more than the series of categories and sub-categories already described. But as more and more portal sites were created and started competing for the same sets of eyeballs, each portal would try to provide additional features that would lure you to their site, as opposed to a competitor. It is now common for just about every portal to provide features such as links to online shopping, auctions, classified ads, yellow pages search (businesses), white pages search (people), maps, top news stories, sports news and scores, stock quotes and financial news, TV listings, weather forecasts, chat rooms, clubs, games, things for children, personal calendar features, and contests that pay out huge cash awards. The idea is to provide some much useful information that you will want to always start your web journey at their site, and, if they have their way, to keep you there the entire time. As such, most portals also allow you to customize the site, so that it will give prominent emphasis to those things you find most important.

New Portal Features
The portal sites are always coming up with new features that will attract you or make you stay. One feature recently offered at some portals is a photo search. This works like a typical search engine, but it searches for photos matching the subject you supply. We tried a few searches for Hollywood stars and other famous people, but that was too easy. So wanting to really test the feature, we asked it to look for “Gordon B. Hinckley.” That returned five hits. One was from Deseret Book, and was the cover of the biography Go Forward with Faith. Another was a portrait of the Prophet from someone’s private web site. The third was actually a picture with lines drawn on it – designed to be cut up and then used as a jigsaw puzzle for younger children. The last two were sites containing pictures of LDS temples that probably mentioned President Hinckley somewhere in the text.

Now that you know a little about what portal sites are all about, it’s time to break out the old web browser and take a tour of the ones that are the most popular. They are listed below, along with the names of their hosting organizations or information about the content you will find there.

home.netscape.com(Netscape – now owned by America Online)

home.snap.com(NBC Television)

www.altavista.com

www.aol.com(America Online)

www.excite.com

www.go.com(Disney, ABC Television, ESPN Sports)

www.ldsworld.com(Click “Links” for LDS-related web sites)

www.lycos.com

www.msn.com(Microsoft)

www.yahoo.com

Like most of the web, there is no charge for using most of these sites. Some of them allow you to register, but that is only so you can use features such as free e-mail and customized calendars. Be assured there are lots of links to places that allow you to spend money, such as online stores and travel agencies. The owners of the portal site get a percentage of every dollar you spend that originates from their site, so it is in their best interest to get you to spend money. Also, as you visit some of the portals listed above, expect to find lots of links to products sold by the sponsoring organizations, and to find promotions to get you to try their products or services.

LDS “Portals”
Although there are a few sites trying to provide portals for LDS resources (such as LDSWorld), these probably aren’t portals in the true sense of the word, unless LDS-related sites are your only destination. LDSWorld, LDS.org, Meridian Magazine, and other LDS-related sites are more accurately called “vortals,” or vertical portals, providing information, goods, and services about one specific interest or topic. Most of the portals listed above can probably guide you to LDS material, although it might take some experimentation and searching to find the right path.


First select the religion category, and then try looking for “Mormon,” or “LDS” with the search facility. This is not the same as a search engine, but simply allows you to search the material within the category or sub-category you have selected. Be warned also that you will find the good with the bad, so expect some of the sites you find will contain anti-LDS material.

As you explore these and other portal sites, you might find one that is so useful you would like to make it your home page. This means that your web browser will always go there first when you start it. If you use Internet Explorer, position yourself on the page you want to become your home page. Then select “Internet Options” under the “Tools” menu item. Find the “Home Page” section under the “General” tab, then click the button “Use Current.” If you use the Netscape Navigator, select the “Preferences” option under the “Edit” menu item, and then click the word “Navigator.” Use the “Last page visited” button if you are positioned on your portal page, or use the “Location” box within the “Home page” area to type in the web page address of the portal you wish to use.

Web portals represent a lot of expended time and money by the organizations that sponsor them. Having one or two good portals in your Internet toolbox will do much to help you navigate the vast universe of the World Wide Web.