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Content-type: text/html Stephen's Web ~ Portals and Community Plays ~ Stephen Downes

Portals and Community Plays

Posted on NewsTrolls and to Steve Outing 28 June 1999

I used to run a city site much like Houston 4U - in fact, my site started in 1995 and was called "The Brandon Pages". I abandoned the site when I moved from Brandon (in Manitoba, Canada) to my new position in Edmonton.

Anyhow, I was up against MTS Advanced early - they got off the ground in 1997 with a site called "Around Brandon" - it quickly absorbed another ISP and its site, and it was big, it was splashy, and it was just like Telus's MyBC. The 'Brandon' component of the site disappeared in 1998 - Brandon, population 40,000, was not large enough to support the venture - and is now simply Around Manitoba.

Of course the other reason was that I kicked their butt. I watched no fewer than five commercial sites go down while I managed my one-man volunteer site. Try as they might, I got the links, I got the traffic, and were I posting banner ads, I would have had the revenue. More on that below...

I was intriqued by Steve Outing's column today, AltaVista/Zip2 Portal Strategy Taking Shape (The link will be live after June 30; for now, see here), thinking that these large community-site vendors had finally 'got it'. But no. While you may style these as portal sites, if you actually look at them, you should notice that you never leave the site. These are not portals because they do not refer you to any external websites at all.

This was why I created The Brandon Pages in the first place and why I kicked their butts. My site linked to everything - positively everything - in the city of Brandon. Including the other 'City of Brandon' sites (which never did link back to me - go figure). And so long as there was more than one ISP, my site was guaranteed to be more comprehensive.

Sure, I had news articles and weather and a chat board and maps and tourist information and all of that. But mainly what I had was a neatly indexed (and customizable) list of every website in Brandon or about Brandon.

Now I would say that these sites - and they're not portals because they don't link to anything - are vulnerable to this kind of competition. They depend on their users setting them up as their home pages (Telus, which is also an ISP, is in a better position to do this than the nespaper sites). But they won't get the support generally of businesses in the community (though they may get the support of the Chamber of Commerce, because they're a big business) because they won't link to their websites. Any site which comes along and links to everything else will cut them off at the knees.

Now as to the cost - although the city sites are being touted as 'expensive' any geek with a server and some smarts can respond fairly efficiently. Drop it on a Linux box (because MS sw support always costs a lot of money). Install some free online community support - the discussion board, web-email, personal pages, calendar, etc (all of which may be obtained for free). The tough part is to troll for the links - you can use a product like Smart Spider or write your own script in PERL. Toss it into a PERL-based database, like MySQL, and you're set (I didn't even use the database, because we're only talking about a few thousand entities here). The total cost - including a server rental - is $200 without Smart Spider (I set up for $200), $1000 with the Spider.

The other sites can't respond. If they add the links to their pages, they lose viewership, because people would rather see the actual site rather than the Telus or 4U version of it. And people once they've left might never come back. Remember, their business model depends on keeping people on their site. But if they don't set up the links, then they begin to lose visitors. They lose the tourist traffic almost right away (I got almost all of Brandon's online tourist traffic) because there's no easy way in to such a site (people won't link to it if they don't link back). And if they are not also the service provider, it becomes really hard to get people to make them their home page (with the Brandon pages, I made deals with competing ISPs to have them feature my site on their home page.)

I haven't even mentioned the content on the Around Manitoba or even the Houston 4U of MyBC sites. The news is soft-pedalled and oh-so very positive. The riskiest thing MyBC offered today was 'Biker killed'. Houston 4U was a little more aggressive, going after the immigrants (' Hospitals' immigrant care drain on budget'), but nothing which might upset the sponsors, or the parent company. It's the sanitization of online reportage, and I think that people will see through that pretty quickly, and again, flock to any site which they perceive to be a neutral or independent voice.

So I don't think we've seen the end of this yet. We've seen some forays into the field by some entities which don't 'get it' yet, entities which think they can monopolize online traffic. But don't be lured by the big names, glossy pages, and newspaper support (remember, in many eyes, newspapers are the least credible source of information, and online syrup like this only reinforces that view). Any kid with some smarts and some time can outwit them at their own game, and be more credible to boot. Online community sites will have to do a lot more before they approach anything like common currency.

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