MSN

Face it, Google. You're a portal.

August 17, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

Google built its success on a simple search box that disrupted that old-line business, the web portal. So why is it working so hard to become one itself?

By Kevin Kelleher, contributor

Google.comFORTUNE -- Google is becoming all things online. Its quest to organize all the world's information has pushed it beyond the search box. Google saw that people loved Yelp, so it aggregated reviews. It saw how we took to group-buying deals, so it launched Offers. It chased Facebook for years and finally came up with Google+. It added games to the equation. And now, with its $12.5 billion bid for Motorola Mobility, it is staking a major claim on the mobile web.

It's as of the company is asking us: Why look anywhere else for your online needs? Google (GOOG) wants to be to the web what Wal-Mart (WMT) was to retailing in the 1990s - or what Amazon (AMZN) has been to retailing in the last decade. It wants to be the only game in town. It wants to be the one domain to rule them all.

It wants, in other words, to be a portal.

But of course, Google won't say that out loud. In the past, it's corrected bloggers who dared call it a portal. And its efforts to create home pages (iGoogle, What Do You Love? ) have been uncharacteristically halfhearted. Traditional portals like Yahoo (YHOO) and Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN  have always paid publishers to syndicate content, while Google simply aggregates what's published on the web. And it's a fine line between directing web users to the information they want and co-opting content without paying publishers.

There is another clear reason not to claim to be a portal. It's the business model that dares not speak its name. Few labels are as unglamorous in the web industry as the portal. It reeks of the primitive 90s, when early mammoths like Lycos, Excite and AOL (AOL) ruled the web. Portals were for newbies, who needed someone to hold their hand while they navigated the web.

But make no mistake. Google is becoming a portal. Google may still draw 98% of its revenue from online advertising. But less and less of those advertising dollars are coming from Google's iconic search box. They are coming from YouTube ads, they're coming from Gmail ads and they'll be coming from newer services like Google+, Offers and Games. All of these initiatives mirror services that are the bread and butter of portals: web mail, online videos, e-commerce and games.

Which is especially strange because Google's simple search box all but killed the web portal. Rather than roaming inside the walled garden of Yahoo's domain, say, Google's search offered the freedom to roam the web at large. Then came Facebook, and Google's search model seemed doomed to go the way of the portal. So the company brought out Google+, a social network added to the sprawling menu of features that have little to do with search.

Google has faced a second threat to its search revenue -- the explosion of mobile apps on smartphones, which allow users to access web content free of search engines. When it debuted, Apple's (AAPL) iPhone offered a vision of the web where Google simply wasn't needed anymore.

But Google had Android, a little-noticed acquisition that has quickly become a mobile OS optimized to support Google features like Maps, Wallet and Local. And Google's purchase this week of Motorola Mobility (MMI) suggests it wants to integrate hardware and software to create a mobile device that, unlike like the iPhone, isn't independent of Google's ad-serving products, but greatly dependent on them. The Android phone is a portal in your pocket – and the portal belongs to Google.

At the end of the day, a portal is simply a suite of features combined to create a gateway to web content - whether it's a web directory like Excite, a cluttered home page like Yahoo or a mobile platform like Android. The goal is to get users to come to you when they want to navigate the web, and to take a cut of the revenue once you help them get there.

To keep growing, Google has to adopt the very business model it started out rebelling against. It has to become that gateway through which we enter the web. Google might as well admit it: It's fate is to become a portal.

  • WSJ: Google to spend $100 million on original YouTube content

    Its acquisition of Next New Network is just the start.

    Google (GOOG) has always cut a pretty clear line between "organizing the world's information" and creating it.  However, a recent significnt purchase of Next New Network and a report by the Wall Street Journal today seem to indicate that Google is now forging ahead in creating its own content.

    The company is planning changes to the homepage that would highlight sets of channels around MORE

    - Apr 6, 2011 4:37 PM ET
  • Rotten Tomatoes gets fresh

    The Internet's crankiest brand goes mainstream in a bid to turn "fresh/rotten" into the "two thumbs" of film criticism

    By John Patrick Pullen

    It's a plot for what can only be described as an "unlikely buddy picture." In January 2010, when the upstart movie social network Flixster managed to wrestle film criticism aggregator Rotten Tomatoes away from Fox Interactive Media, the two websites -- formerly competitors -- were suddenly on the same MORE

    Jul 2, 2010 1:34 PM ET
  • Yahoo! gooses search share with slideshow trick

    Taken at face value, it appears that Yahoo increased its search market share last month. However there is some trickery involved.

    Yahoo has changed its gallery sites to "search for" images rather than just browse them as they had before.  In doing so, Yahoo's comScore numbers went up significantly last month; Google's went down.

    Notice in the image below the navigation items now become "searches."

    - May 11, 2010 4:11 PM ET
    Posted in: , , , , ,
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.