Google Personalization Push Portends Portal Play

In the clearest sign yet that it wants to compete with rivals such as Yahoo and MSN in the portal business as well as pure search, Google has given users the ability to customize their Google home pages.

The Google personalization feature enables users to fold a dozen different types of content into the search engine’s home page, long known for its stripped-down, bare-bones look that focused exclusively on various types of search — Web, photos, news, etc. The personalization feature is at http://www.google.com/ig.

There, users can choose from weather feeds, stock market quotes, news feeds from the New York Times, BBC News, Google News, Wired News and Slashdot, as well as Gmail, Google’s Web mail service, movie listings and offbeat features such as quote and word of the day. They can also move the various content around on the page. A link enables users to revert back to the basic Google page with one click.

Registration Necessary

Users must register with Google in order to save the personalized page and must sign in when they return after logging off. Both MSN and Yahoo offer similar personalization options for their portals with similar but larger menus of services and features.

Google unveiled the service at the end of its first-ever media day at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, which it billed as the Google Factory Tour. That event was staged on the same day Google let most of its employees have a day off in order to view the latest “Star Wars” movie.

Analysts say the portal effort is no laughing matter for Google — or its major competitors. Most have said many of Google’s recent moves, from forays into news aggregation and its shopping site Froogal, to its Gmail service, social networking efforts and acquisition of a blogging software provider all pointed to the inevitability of a Google portal.

“The introduction of Google’s personalized homepage provides yet another example of how the online marketing battle lines are far from delineated,” Charles Buchwalter, vice president of analytics at Nielsen//NetRatings, said. “Leading players continue to innovate and consumers win as a result of the competition.”

Nielsen//NetRatings said My Yahoo, the personalized version of that portal, drew about 19.5 million unique visitors in May. By comparison, Yahoo itself had a unique audience of 94.8 million and Google drew 72.8 million in the same month.

Four’s a Crowd

For now, the customized pages do not include advertisement, but most analysts expect that to change, and Google has not ruled it out.

Google’s expected arrival in the world of portals won’t be the last salvo fired in the space. AOL is widely expected to launch a public portal version of its once proprietary online world sometime this summer.

All of the major players — and smaller niche competitors such as Lycos — bring their own strengths to the space, setting up an epic battle for the eyeballs of users, one that will extend all the way from online and mobile instant messaging to e-commerce and social networking and a host of different search tools, including desktop, local and video search.

Google bills the personalization feature as part of a bigger idea it calls “Fusion,” in which a broad range of information is funneled through various Google tools, which are in turn available all in one place.

Search Engine Watch Editor Danny Sullivan, who has considered Google a “stealth portal” for some time, said the personalized page is an upgrade.

“It makes sense for Google to offer a unified page for many of its services, and the page does this without impacting the regular Google site nor getting far away from the general Google feel at all,” he said.

That Browser Issue

Sullivan said that at least for now, neither Yahoo nor MSN should be threatened by the Google portal. The competitors, he added, have “far more mature services, feature rich with things that still amaze me today. Both are also much farther ahead on the feed-reading front. Most of the millions already using these services aren’t going to find the new Google personalization compelling enough to depart.”

Instead, the bare-bones style portal will help keep existing users from straying to another option, he said. And Google is already promising a number of feature upgrades in the near future, from an unlimited choice of news feeds through RSS to the ability to fold any e-mail account into the home page.

Loyalty is the watchword among portals and search companies today, since losing users can have a direct impact on the bottom line by making advertising less lucrative, Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li told the E-Commerce Times.

“One way to prevent users from leaving is to offer the same things the other guys does,” Li said. If features are largely the same, a user is highly unlikely to uproot sticky features such as e-mail or IM accounts in order to switch.

Ironically, the Google home page had become something of an industry icon, with other firms, including Yahoo, adopting the mostly blank-page look for their search pages. Another side effect of the change appears to be renewed speculation about a Google browser in some quarters.

Such a browser could give users even more flexibility in building their own Google-friendly pages. However, the company has long denied such a move is part of its longtime strategy.

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