The web is changing, but it all starts with your personal home page. What is the first thing you see when you start your browser? Is it useful and tailored to you, or a collection of advertisements and meaningless promotions for portal services? The recent $15 million funding of one-year-old startup Netvibes combined with the ramp-up of Microsoft’s Live.com and iGoogle are changing the worldwide web doorway into a customized experience combining many brands and services. In this post I’ll summarize the history of pre-programmed start pages and take a look at where we might be headed in the near future. I’ll follow-up with customizable start pages in another post.
Online Welcome Pages
In the beginning there were welcome pages from online services such as Quantum Link (pictured above). The site broke your available in-network options into easy to understand categories such as shopping, news, and chat. At connection speeds of 1200 bit/s and limited online content there were few options available.
As the web gained steam online welcome pages were able to add a few topical links such as the news of the day. The image above is taken from AOL dial-up in 1999 and shows links to popular features such as e-mail, people, and the Internet. The page contains two advertisements, one seasonal message, and two news of the day entries for AOL’s 20 million users. Every user of the service is logged-in and personally identifiable down to their street address and phone number.
Early portal pages such as Yahoo! (pictured above) organized the web into categories for easy discovery. The site did not produce much content of its own, but served as a guide and filter to the growing Web. Almost everything was new and users could suggest a new site for inclusion in the directory.
Twelve years later there are billions of documents on the web and over 100 services offered by Yahoo. The new homepage highlights the Yahoo! services you use the most and featured dynamic content from around the network such as top news and trends float to the top. The page contains two advertisement blocks, one text and one graphical, but all other content keeps you within the network.
Websites are able to collect information about a user’s location such as zip codes for a logged-in user or an approximate location based on an IP address for anyone. Personal accounts on websites commonly collect birth date, gender, marital status, and geographic location for ad targeting, but such information can also be used to target other content such as a weather report, news, or sports scores.
The new Yahoo! homepage includes mail and weather info buttons unique to a logged-in user, providing a peek into your personal Yahoo. This customized information is placed directly above the most valuable advertising spot on the page.
Programmed personal homepages are a lightweight way to summarize site features and dynamic content for a large amount of users. Customization takes a bit of heavy lifting, and programmed personal homepages can scale well with the same content available for hundreds of millions of users accessing a site such as Yahoo! or MSN.
Will the programmed homepages survive as users move to pages they build themselves or pages pre-loaded with content from a specific community? That’s a topic for a separate post, so stay tuned.