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Stop this portal nonsense!

Let's retire the notion of Internet "portal."

Let's retire the notion of Internet "portal."

Put "portal" onto the junk heap of brain-dead buzzwords, along with "push." Remember that one? Eighteen months ago, we were all swooning over its possibilities. Now, yesteryear's pinnacle of push, PointCast, disavows any positioning in that vein. Ditto for Marimba.

What's wrong with the portal principle? It started out as a way to describe Web sites that want to be your first stop on the Internet. Most of them--Yahoo, Excite, Lycos, Infoseek--used to be search engines, which were logical jumping-off points for a wide and chaotic Net.

Then these sites began to morph into something else, driven by a single economic reality: After a Yahoo visitor searches for "sports" and clicks away to ESPN SportsZone, Yahoo doesn't get paid for the next ad banner. Starwave does.

So Excite, Yahoo, and company began to bring other people's content to their services, usually in the form of channels, a TV metaphor. That way, the former search engines shared revenue for clicks with ESPN and other content providers.

By aggregating content, the Web sites formerly known as directories and search engines became something else, but it wasn't portals. Portals, as Yahoo's No. 2 exec Jeff Mallet says, are entry points, a place you pass through, usually quickly. Like a doorway--exactly what he doesn't want Yahoo to be.

"We see ourselves as more of a hub, with some services and content hosted here," Mallet says. It will point to other offerings, evolving into a Web-based online service--a positioning that Excite would accept, too.

Today, "hub" has a nice ring to it, but this month's frenetic dealmaking means that by December the term will be out of date.

The new model is "networks," which link old media to new firms and services. It also describes today's successful suitors for search sites--the old media companies buying into new media, a crucial link for these new networks.

Disney, which owns ABC television, last week bought a big chunk of Infoseek. Barely a week before that, NBC purchased a stake in Snap, the struggling portal play of NEWS.COM's parent, CNET: The Computer Network.

Earlier, AT&T reportedly tried to buy America Online but was rebuffed. AOL, the only true portal, serves as a hybrid Internet on-ramp and content aggregator--a combination that has become America's safe way to the Net. It's a model no one else has successfully cloned.

For the buyers, these emerging Internet networks combine content and a foothold among consumers on the Net. AOL has both and doesn't need AT&T and its megabucks. ABC and NBC had TV content and consumers but wanted better Internet beachheads. Snap and Infoseek needed the promotional power of a major TV network.

Players to watch in coming weeks: CBS, Time Warner, and Fox, as well as its parent News Corporation. On the Internet side: Lycos, Yahoo, Excite, and maybe GeoCities.

Lycos, a dealmaking laggard among search engines, boasts Bo Peabody's Tripod audience of twenty-somethings, but it must make an old-media deal. My bet's on edgy Fox, which was spurned last year by PointCast. AltaVista, a Compaq Computer property after Digital's acquisition, may be in play as well.

CBS too needs a deal: Its Sportsline action isn't enough for the Wall Street cognoscenti who are driving these investments.

Yahoo and Excite can stand pat. They've got enough content and consumer mind share to nix old-media buyout, but it's crossed their minds to acquire CBS, Paramount's aspiring UPN TV network, or maybe a satellite broadcaster to promote their online efforts.

Time Warner, which reportedly bid for AOL too, must be thinking hard about its next move, since its print-based Pathfinder site has been a bust. GeoCities, with enormous grassroots consumer interest, is now on the IPO track, but buyouts can happen before or after a company goes public.

As always, there's Microsoft. NBC's Snap deal must have stung, as Redmond looked to NBC to round out its new media strategy. With bundles of bucks and ambition, rest assured the software giant is just getting started. To date, its media efforts have been varied, underwhelming, and costly.

One way or another, Microsoft will need a network to go with Start, its impending entry in the category once called portals. If NBC were for sale, Bill Gates might buy it.

What about Netscape? The once-hot Internet software company is transforming its popular Web site into what it calls a "business portal," and Wall Street is buying the story.

The market positioning seems to make sense, especially against the consumer slant of other players. Plus, Netscape hopes to boost its enterprise software business through tie-ins at its Web site, an interesting but still unproven idea.

Can Netscape find a business network? Probably not, and if it did, it couldn't afford to buy it. It makes more sense for Netscape to sell its Netcenter Web site and get out of the media business.

A change in strategy? It's what Netscape does most often. But that's another story.

Tim Clark writes on e-commerce topics every Monday. Send him email on what needs changing.