Personalize your portal to the Web


Friday, July 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Aggregators let you put favorites on one page

People evidently are developing some strange habits on the Internet.

Several recent studies have shown that Web visitors spend almost all of their monthly time cycling through the same 10 destinations.

Many never leave America Online, Yahoo or the Microsoft Network, the three most popular spots, according to the latest Neilsen/Media Metrix report.

Researchers found that surfers have a common complaint: Wandering through endless links to find one chunk of information is frustrating.

In fact, according to an August 1999 study by NetSmart, 85 percent of all Web site visitors regularly leave disgusted and unfulfilled. "They don't feel like they're getting what they want out of the Web," says Steve Douty, who heads a company with a possible solution. "There's this sense that, 'There's so much out there, I'll absolutely never get to it all.' "Enter the aggregators. This new breed of personal Internet portal is experimenting with ways to coalesce information grabbed from all over the Internet inside a single browser window. Some services, such as Yodlee www.yodlee.com, have concentrated on ways to assemble bank balances, 401(k) account data, stock reports and other financial information onto personal, password-protected pages. Others, such as Mr. Douty's Octopus www.octopus.com, allow users to drag and drop their own "views" of Web pages, special interest publications and news sites into a browser window, then share them with coworkers and friends. Still others, such as Websplit.com and OnePage.com, provide an easy way to use one window to monitor dozens of constantly updating sites.

Personal Web page aggregators are relatively new, but the response has been greeted warmly, particularly in the financial services realm where Yodlee, VerticalOne.com and other companies have been active for a couple years.

Banks and financial portals such as Motley Fool see aggregation services as a way to offer more value to surfers while increasing site traffic and holding eyeballs longer.

While only about 300,000 users currently subscribe to aggregator services, one research group estimates the number will reach 90 million by 2004. "This aggregation technology is really the most promising to date on how people are going to use the Internet from here on out," says Jim Taschetta, chief marketing officer for Yodlee. "It just makes sense."

The meta effect

The reasons for the aggregator enthusiasm are simple. Search engines have gradually morphed into all-purpose and advertiser-driven portals serving up only a fraction of the Net's information riches, analysts say. Users want personalized, one-stop Web spots that cut down on constant hopping, they say.

Meanwhile, so-called meta-searching tools such as Metacrawler.com have sprung to life. Users evidently feel better using such services to return the best results from multiple engines rather than hopping from one to another.

Even more specialized meta-search sites are attracting users. For example, Broadcast.com made its mark by aggregating video streams in a single spot.

Recently, Moreover.com has made a splash by offering a meta-news site that brings more than 1,500 sources of news headlines under a single Web address.

Many in the industry see this as a trend that is bound to grow with the rapid expansion of Web content. "We are essentially dealing with the Web through browsers the same way we were five years ago - one page at a time," says Mr. Douty, Octopus.com's chief executive officer. "Each page has a lot of links that take you other places. What's happened is that as the Web has grown, that whole mechanism to get Web content hasn't kept pace."

Asset central

Putting all your financial data on one site hosted by Yodlee or one of its competitors can take time to set up, but the benefits quickly become apparent. Like any other sign-up Web service, Yodlee (the name is taken from a famous song in India) requires users to set up a user name and password.

However, unlike most free subscription services, Yodlee doesn't ask a lot of invasive questions. Tell Yodlee where to find your 401(k) information, how to access your online bank account, credit card balances and other accounts, and the service builds an easy-to-scan custom page that displays it all. "Having it in one place is not only convenient, but it gives you a different view of the information and you can make better calls based on it," says Mr. Taschetta. "While the Internet was supposed to simplify people's lives by making access to information easier, what was actually happening is that it was making life more cumbersome. "People were creating more online accounts, essentially creating islands of information. This brings them all together," he says.

Less than a year ago, financial services viewed this technology as a threat to customer privacy and security. Merrill Lynch offered it only to its wealthiest customers - at a fee.

Today, as the benefits of sponsoring their own versions of account aggregation have become apparent, banks are scurrying to sign up with Yodlee, VerticalOne and their competitors. Chase Manhattan Bank recently announced it will use Yodlee to begin free account-aggregation services for the financial institution's 30 million online customers. Other major banks and brokerage firms are expected to follow. Ameritrade Holdings, which operates a popular online brokerage, has begun using account aggregation at its Onmoney.com site.

And the world's largest Internet service provider, America Online, has said Yodlee will provide a similar service for its 23 million subscribers. Yodlee has also moved into mobile computing. Internet-connected palm-tops have access to Yodlee pages constantly. Other devices can carry a daily update after being synched to a user's Web-based account.

And Yodlee has developed a Web-enabled phone service that can access data from more than 1,400 online financial centers with a single call. "As people get more comfortable online, they begin to see the value," says Mr. Taschetta. "It will be possible to get one-click financial adviser information on the same site, for example." Of course, putting all your log-in names and passwords on one Internet server can be a security risk.

Yodlee assures visitors that personally identifiable information will never be sold or shared. Basic demographic data may be shared, Mr. Taschetta says. "Banks realize that if they violate the privacy of the consumer," he says, "this whole thing falls apart."

Broader uses

Services such as OnePage.com and Octopus.com have begun springing up with a variety of models.

OnePage, for example, doesn't handle password-protected financial sites but gives users complete freedom of choice in content.

For those who visit a handful of sites daily, the service eliminates the use of bookmarks. Each view can be filled with news, local weather images, traffic information, sports scoreboards - anything from any site you regularly visit. Some Web-to-display coding glitches remain, but William A. Chen, the founder of OnePage, says they're being addressed. Still, users continue to invent other applications for themselves, Mr. Chen says. "People are putting together educational stuff, stuff for their kids," he says. "That's really the power of this platform. Each person has access to information that's only relevant to them. A single page becomes your gateway to the Internet." More ambitious is Octopus.com, a project recently launched by Mr. Douty with help from such Web visionaries as Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape.

Like other aggregators, it allows users to build their own sources of information with various templates. But unlike others, it works entirely within the browser on the user's PC. Octopus, just emerging from beta testing, allows users to compose their own "views" of the Internet on as many pages as necessary.

It doesn't work well yet with Netscape, but it does support Internet Explorer 4.0 and higher, as well as AOL. The clean, no-ad format lets users select and drag news, information services and personal Web favorites to the display. "We're just helping your browser pull that stuff together," says Mr. Douty. "And that means if you've already personalized a site, you don't have to do it again because your browser already has the information it needs." Beyond that, Octopus encourages people to compile and share views they've created. Net-savvy friends and co-workers may be the first to compile the ultimate collection of data on specific topics, then e-mail their Octopus pages to others with similar interests.

For example, a staunch fan of Arizona State University basketball has pulled together all the Web pages where graduates are listed in professional basketball statistics. "They put all those statistic-tracking services in one page, then pass it around so everyone can follow how those players are doing," Mr. Douty says. "It's quite inventive." Corporate applications are also being explored, for example, to provide employees with a steady diet of company information and industry news.

Whether aggregators will catch on is still anyone's guess. But with a track record being established within financial services, such customizable, one-stop Web services seem destined to expand horizons. "We think it can change the way people see the Web," Mr. Douty says.