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Welcome to "My" Parlor
Jan 25, 1999 :: Peter Merholz

Harkening back to the classic "electronic newspaper" conceit dreamed up at the beginning of the network revolution, a centerpiece of any portal worth half its market cap is news personalization (you can usually recognize it by the annoying prefix "my"). You provide some demographic data and check some preference boxes, they serve up your customized set of linked headlines.

In an effort to achieve what pundits and analysts call "stickiness," the links are nearly always limited to the news portals can co-brand or host on their servers, which typically means bland reporting from Reuters. By confining you within their castle walls and placating you with whatever content gruel they've managed to hoard, they baldly flout this technology called the "Web," which is explicitly designed to leverage the power of interconnectedness.

Bucking the trend, however, are Snap and MSN. These two forgo the Roach Motel model by being so bold as to feature links to content and news all over the web -- instead of just to stories housed in their own databases -- and in the process provide a superior content experience. With their rotating lists of external headlines, Snap and MSN essentially offer smart, updated bookmark pages. Business news from means factoid reporting from a wire feed; at Snap it means linked headlines to news, analysis and opinion from Business Week, CBS Marketwatch, Bloomberg and others.

A friend at Excite scoffed at this model, noting that they tried outside linking once, only to discover that Wall Street cares about two key portal statistics: page views, and the length of time users spend at the site. Snap sees things differently, of course. "We like stickiness as much as the next portal," explained Andrew Hyde, Snap's CFO, "but we don't want to rein in our users. We would rather make our service so relevant that they don't need to use other portals and keep coming back to use Snap as their window to the web."

Hyde explains Snap's policy as "putting the users first." And for good reason. The Web is bigger than any one site can ever hope to be (yes, even Yahoo!), and it doesn't take long for users to learn that. When offered the choice, whom would you rather be -- the spider traversing her own strands on the web, or the fly stuck in it?



Other pieces about personalization: