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'What features in a Portal?'

Geoff Butters analyses the features found in various types of portal, and includes a comparison with the planned features for the JISC Subject Portals.

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Introduction

EDNER - the formative evaluation of the UK higher education sector's Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) - is a three-year project being undertaken by the Centre for Research in Library & Information Management (CERLIM) at the Manchester Metropolitan University and the Centre for Studies in Advanced Learning Technology (CSALT) at Lancaster University.  One strand of the project is to undertake an evaluation of the JISC Subject Portals.  As part of that work a systematic investigation of portal features was undertaken in the summer of 2002 to help develop a profile of features of JISC, institutional, and commercial portals.

Within the EDNER Project the term 'Portal' has a fairly tight definition as prescribed by the JISC 5/99 Programme and subsequently the Portal Development Programme.  The 5/99 Programme Call documentation, and more particularly the 'Town Meeting' held in London after the Call was announced, suggested that in essence:-

"A portal accepts requests from users and itself interrogates information services it believes may hold appropriate resources.  It sends queries to those services and accepts result sets.  It then processes those result sets (for example, by removing duplicates) and presents them to the user.  In essence the user never leaves the portal." [1]

This has subsequently been expanded to:-

"Technically, a portal is a network service that brings together content from diverse distributed resources using technologies such as cross-searching, harvesting, and alerting, and collates this into an amalgamated form for presentation to the user.  This presentation is usually via a Web browser, though other means are also possible.  For users, a portal is a, possibly personalised, single point of access where searching can be carried out across one or more than one resource and the amalgamated results viewed.  Information may also be presented via other means, for example, alerting services and conference listings or links to e-prints and learning materials." [2].

In the wider community the term 'portal' is used far more freely to describe Web sites with varying degrees of functionality; for example:-

" Systems which gather a variety of useful information resources into a single, 'one stop' Web page, helping the user to avoid being overwhelmed by infoglut, or feeling lost on the Web." [3]

" .  .  an organising principal that brings like-minded businesses and customers together, to their mutual benefit.  Information is obtained, ads are seen, products are purchased, and everyone's happy." [4]

However, the thinking is changing, and the JISC definitions have developed over time.  One draft considered by the JISC- funded Subject Portals Project (SPP) [5] suggested:

" a portal is an online service that provides a personalised, single point of access to resources that support the end-user in one or more tasks (resource discovery, learning, research etc.).  The resources made available via a portal are typically brought together from more than one source." [6]

Another suggests that a portal is a:

" network service that provides access to a range of heterogeneous network services, local and remote, structured and unstructured.  Such network services might typically include resource discovery services, email access and online discussion fora.  Portals are aimed at human end-users using common Web 'standards' such as HTTP, HTML, Java and JavaScript." [7]

For the purpose of this study a loose interpretation of the term has been accepted so as to be as inclusive as possible.

Methodology

An extensive sample of the literature on the subject of portals was scrutinised to gain an insight into what was being considered as the functionality that differentiated a portal from a simple Web page.  Examples of the most relevant literature consulted are included in the list of references [3-4] [ 8-25].  An initial list of features that might be found in a portal was then compiled from the features suggested in the literature.  Those features consisted mostly of what might be expected in a commercial portal as provided by popular search engines such as AltaVista, Excite and Yahoo!, or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as AOL, Freeserve and MicroSoft Network(MSN), plus some from specialist (or vertical) sites such as iVillage, LibraryHQ and Zdnet, and academic sites such as MyLibrary @ NCState (North Carolina State University) and MyUCLA (University of California at Los Angeles).  Added to this were portal features contained in a survey [26] conducted on behalf of the JISC-funded Subject Portals Project (SPP) [5].  The survey results included features suggested by academic information professionals for inclusion in an academic subject-based portal, and as such included several items deemed desirable but not necessarily yet provided in existing portals.

The resultant list of features was edited for duplication under different names, i.e. where different terminology had been used to describe the same feature.  Putting an interpretation on what someone had meant by a particular term, and whether they meant the same thing as another person using a similar term, was quite a difficult task, and some value judgements had to be made in order to avoid, as far as possible, ambiguity.  The problem of interpreting terminology arose again when actually checking sites for features where each site's meaning for a term could differ somewhat.  Again value judgements were made so as to be as consistent as possible.  However, there was one instance where the offerings of different sites were hardly the same: the feature 'travel news' in most instances consisted of news items about holidays or the prospects for national and international travel.  One US university site, however, didn't offer that kind of news, but under the title 'travel news' offered real-time up-to-the-minute traffic and public transport news for the local area.  This illustrates how terminology can be used with different nuances of meaning.

The features were grouped where possible into similar types.  Some groupings were fairly obvious:  e.g., the features 'chat', 'chat channels', 'instant messaging', 'computer conferencing', 'newsletter', 'message boards', 'discussion groups', 'ask an expert' and 'collaborative working'  all readily fell into the group 'Community Communication';  several varieties of news  - 'general', 'local', 'world', 'sport', 'weather', 'stock market',  - could all be grouped under 'News'.  In some cases, though, the grouping of the features was somewhat arbitrary and thus fairly meaningless, so the groupings are of limited significance:  the important matter was that a feature was listed for investigation.

During the investigation, several additional features were found that were deemed to be worth noting and added to the list as 'Additional features found'.  It is somewhat surprising that some of the features listed here had not previously been in the list, e.g. 'Job search' and 'Calendar of events', but their omission could again be the result of mis-interpretation of terminology.  Other additions are perhaps newer features, e.g. 'SMS text messaging' and 'TV listings'.  It should also be noted that sites add features from time to time.

Based on the literature review, a list of portals for possible analysis was produced.  The list included what various authors suggested were portals, whether or not the site owners described them as such.  Each of the sites on the list were subjected to a brief initial investigation to confirm their existence and suitability for inclusion in the analysis, as a result of which some sites were excluded.  For example, one site was excluded because it was no longer what it had used to be, (a site that was about pets in general had been taken over by a pet supermarket chain as their own); one had recently been taken over by another; the extent to which shopping malls offered services from the features list was found to be so very limited that they would not provide a useful comparison to the other sites; and some ISP sites (e.g. MSN) could not be thoroughly analysed without actually becoming a paying subscriber.

MyLibrary@NCState is the name given to software that was developed by Eric Lease Morgan [27] and originally implemented at North Carolina State University.  It has since been implemented at a number of other sites, and nine of these were included in the initial investigation.  As all of these were very similar to the original implementation, and all of them offered only what the underlying university library site offered, (albeit organised in a different manner), no others were included in the final list.  MyLibrary - Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is not an implementation of MyLibrary@NCState, having been developed independently at VCU, and was included.

That initial investigation resulted in a shorter list for thorough analysis.  Sites chosen were categorised into four types:  Search engine-based (six); Internet Service Provider (ISP) based (three); specialist (vertical) (six); and academic (four).  Where there was a UK and a US version of the site, the UK one was listed.  It was noted that UK and US versions are often somewhat different.

A matrix was constructed of the features list against the final sites list, and each site systematically investigated to find which of the features it offered.  For the most part particular features were available within the site itself, but in some cases a feature was offered but took the user out of the site  - i.e. to another site.  This was indicated in the matrix.  However, this was only applied to features that were actually offered within the portal; having moved to another site using a link in the portal, other features found on that site were not indicated as available from the portal.  Other cases arose where it was unclear whether a feature exactly matched something in the features list, and this too was indicated in the matrix.  A few cases were found where it could not be firmly established whether a feature was or wasn't there, and again this was indicated in the matrix.  As previously noted some additional features were found that were deemed to be worth noting and added to the list. A new feature having been found on one site, previously checked sites were re-checked for that additional feature in case it had been overlooked.  The analysis took place between the first week in June and the first week in October 2002.

Finally, for the purpose of comparison, a fifth category of portal was added:  the JISC-funded Subject Portals Project (SPP) [5] planned features.

Analysis of portal features

The sites that were investigated, are categorised into four types:-

Search Engine (SE) sites

AltaVista (UK) http://uk.altavista.com/
Excite (UK) http://www.excite.co.uk/
LookSmart (UK) http://www.looksmart.co.uk/
Lycos (UK) http://www-uk.lycos.com/
Netscape (UK) http://www.netscape.co.uk/
My Netscape http://my.netscape.com/index2.psp

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) sites

AOL (UK) http://www.aol.co.uk/
BTopenworld http://www.btopenworld.com/default
Freeserve http://www.freeserve.com/

Specialist (vertical) sites

Fool.com (UK) http://www.fool.co.uk/
iVillage  http://www.ivillage.co.uk/
LibraryHQ.com http://www.libraryhq.com/
Zdnet (UK)http://www.zdnet.co.uk/
24 hour museum http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/
HERO http://www.hero.ac.uk/

Academic sites

The four academic portals are actually two 'MyLibrary' sites  -

and two 'institutional' sites  -

This distinction is important in some cases and has been made in the analysis when considering some of the features.  The Subject Portals Project planned features category was added for comparison.

Features offered by the sites analysed

Sites differed considerably in what they offered, perhaps indicating that they were each aimed at a specific target market.  The full matrix is included as Appendix 2 [Excel spreadsheet].  A summary of the availability of features on the sites is as follows:

Utilities

Channels/Categories
See figs 1, 2 and 3 in Appendix 1.  Some sites offer a vast array (e.g. over 40), others offer only a handful:

Browseable Hierarchical Directories (See figs 4 and 5 in Appendix 1):

Email account facilities:

Address Book:

Bookmark Manager:

Calculator:

Calendar:

Currency Exchange Rates:

Diary/Planner:

Internet Telephony:

Access to Geographical Maps:

People Finder:

Personal Information Storage Space:

Language Translation (of Web pages) :

Web Space (for creating own Web site) :

Zip Code/Post Code look-up:

User Profiling / Content Filtering

Family Filtering (restricting access to material deemed unsuitable, especially for children) :

Creation of User Profile(s) of interests:

Personalisation (changing various aspects to suit oneself) :

Resource Discovery

Subject-specific (portal's specialisation) :

Single Sign-on Access Management (automated access to all services for which a user is authorised through a single login to the portal) :

Resource Descriptions:

Selected (Quality Assured (QA)) content:

Browse Resources:

Search Bibliographic database:

Search Citation Databases:

Search the local Web site (or in-house) :

Search the local OPAC:

Search e-Journals:

Search Tables of Content (TOCs) :

Cross-search multiple resources (a single search carried out across many resources simultaneously) :

Search WWW:

Locate, Access/Request, and Deliver/Procure:

Alternative Search Engines (access to search engines other than the site's standard one) :

News/News Feeds

In the News/Headlines:

General news - world:

General news - local:

Subject-specific (portal's specialisation) news:

Weather forecast:

Weather news:

Stock market prices and stock market news:

Sports results:

Sports news:

Entertainment news:

Travel news:

Job vacancy ads/announcements:

Message of the day:

Alerting Service (to new or updated resources) :

Community Communication:-

Chat (real-time) (Internet Relay Chat) :

Chat Channels:

Instant Messaging:

Computer Conferencing:

Newsletter / eZine / Ijournal:

Bulletin / Message boards:

Online Discussion Groups / NewsGroups:

Find / ask an expert:

Collaborative working:

Subject-specific (portal's specialisation):-

(By definition, this category is more likely to be offered by the specialist sites.)

ePrint archive:

FAQs:

Funding sources:

Glossary of subject terms:

Links to related Web sites:

Register of Research:

Software Plugins:

Subject idiosyncrasies:

Advertising

Adverts - general:

Adverts - Subject-specific (portal's specialisation) :

Adverts - classified:

Conference announcements:

Other (non-leisure) events announcements:

Entertainment events announcements:

Education-based

Courses / Course announcements:

Web-based learning resources:

'Courseware ' - course-specific information:

Library account, Library borrowing record, and ILL requests access:

Leisure

Horoscopes:

Online Shopping:

Interviews/chat with celebrities:

Miscellaneous services

Book reviews:

Online surveys:

Budget-management software corporate, - personal:

Organisation chart:

Press release submission:

CV submission:

e-Commerce:

Online banking / finance:

Assistance with site use

Support and guidance and immediate help / help pages:

Your Librarian (access to a librarian specialising in the users' subject area) :

Site map:

Feedback option:

Additional features found not listed above:-

Job search:

SMS text messaging:

TV listings:

Online resource submission (the ability to suggest or submit online resources for inclusion in the portal) :

Games:

Searching via a map:

Calendar of events:

Counselling on-line:

Conclusions

A very few years ago portals were seen as promising to realise the idea of a one-stop shop, where users would opt for the one portal of choice.  However, it was noted during this study that the more features a site offered, the more congested the screen could be.  It is not intended to discuss this further here except to note that some sites dealt with this matter better than others.  However, it is likely that if a portal was to attempt to provide 'all things for all people'  -  and certainly if it attempted to provide the majority of the functionality listed here  -  there might be too much on one screen and too many channels to choose from.  Thus no single portal is likely to serve all purposes.  Different portals will require suitable sets of features as appropriate to the job in hand.

Chris Awre and Alicia Wise remark:

'Portals are seen by many as the way to open doors on the Web to information and knowledge.  Alongside this consensus of sorts, though, the debate on what a portal is and how portals can best be developed continues.' [28]

Clearly the concept of portals is still developing and there remains a lot of uncertainty as to the products which will, in the end, attract and keep the interest of users.

References

  1. JISC Circular 5/99: Developing the DNER for Learning and Teaching (and the subsequent Town Meeting) http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=circular_5_99
  2. Joint Information Systems Committee (2002) Portals: Frequently Asked Questions
    http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=ie_portalsfaq
  3. Portals in Higher Education, EDUCAUSE Review 35, no.4 July/August 2000, p.30 in Personalized library portals as an organizational culture change agent, Lakos, A, Gray, C, Information Technology in Libraries, 19(4) December 2000, p.169-174.
  4. O'Leary, M, Grading the Library Portals, Online, 24(6) November/December 2000, p.38-44
  5. Subject Portals Project (2002) http://www.portal.ac.uk/spp/
  6. Stuckes, J. (2002) Avoiding portal wars: a JISC view.
    http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/web-focus/events/workshops/webmaster-2002/
  7. Miller, P. (2002)The concept of the portal. Ariadne, 30. http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue30/portal/
  8. Guenther, Kim, Customized data delivery through Web portals, Online, November/December 1999.
  9. Hane, P.J., Dialog announces Info Pro Portal, Information Today, 17 (1), January 2000.
  10. Lakos, A, Gray, C, Personalized library portals as an organizational culture change agent, Information Technology in Libraries, 19(4) December 2000.
  11. Minkel, W, Portal Combat, School Library Journal, May 2000.
  12. Jacso, P, Portals, Vortals and Mere Mortals, Computers in Libraries, 21 (2), February 2001.
  13. What is a Portal, Anyway?, Judith Boettcher interviews Howard Strauss, CREN Tech Talk Series, January 2000. http://www.cren.net/know/techtalk/trans/portals_1.html
  14. Bradley, P, Internet portals, Records Management Bulletin, 98 (16), August 2000.
  15. Goodman, A & Kleinschmidt, C, Frequently Asked Questions about Portals, Traffick.com, March 2002. http://www.traffick.com/article.asp?aID=9
  16. Rowley, J, Portal Power, Managing Information, 7 (1), January/February 2000.
  17. Ketchell, D. S., Too Many Channels: Making sense out of portals and personalisation, Information Technology in Libraries, 19(4) December 2000.
  18. Swisher, Bob, UCLA Gives Students a Personalized Contact With School, it-fyi email list, September 1998. http://www.ou.edu/archives/it-fyi/0357.html
  19. Stoner, M, Getting Personal, Currents, March 2000. http://www.case.org/currents/2000/March/Stoner.cfm
  20. Wetzel, K A, Portal Functionality Provided by ARL Libraries: Results of an ARL Survey, ARL Bimonthly Report 222, June 2002. http://www.arl.org/newsltr/222/portalsurvey.html
  21. Parapadakis, G, Collaborative, Corporate and Enterprise Portals, Information Management & Technology, May/June 2001.
  22. Geenstein, D and Healy, L W, Print and Electronic Information: Shedding New Light on Campus Use, EDUCAUSE Review, September/October 2002.
  23. Deans, K R and von Allmen, A, Poo Poo Portals At Your Peril, AusWeb02, July 2002. http://ausweb.scu.edu.au/aw02/papers/refereed/deans/paper.html
  24. White, M, The ins and outs of portals, Information World Review, March 2001
  25. Clark, J, Subject portals,. Ariadne, 29. http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue29/clark/intro.html
  26. Mathematics Portals Project (2002) Portal development. http://www.mathgate.bham.ac.uk/mathsportal/Developments.asp
  27. Eric Lease Morgan, University Libraries of Notre Dame
    http://dewey.library.nd.edu/mylibrary/
  28. Awre, C and Wise, A, Portal progress, CILIP Library and Information Update, 1 (6), September 2002.

Author Details

Geoff Butters
Senior Research Fellow CERLIM
Dept of Information and Communications Manchester Metropolitan University.

Email: g.butters@mmu.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.cerlim.ac.uk/main/staff.html