Meanwhile, Back at the Portal...

by , Oct 7, 2010, 2:15 PM
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Given the app-happy state of things in the mobile arena these days, it's easy to forget that the mobile Web continues to thrive. A sobering stat comes out of the latest comScore research on mobile usage, for instance. While 55.7 million Americans now own smartphones, only 32.3% of all mobile subscribers used a downloaded app in August. Slightly more, 34.5%, used their mobile Web browsers.   

In fact, while a lot of us were focusing on the latest and greatest apps, the mobile Web is evolving in interesting directions. Yahoo unveiled this week its new mobile portal at m.yahoo.com, and it leverages HTML5 to very good effect. The home page now has sections for main stories, "Must Reads," News, Entertainment, Business, etc. that allow for lateral swipes, so that single page quickly explodes into a dense content drill without the tortuous mobile page reloads. The best thing about the new Yahoo design is that it remains consistent even as you drill into specific topic areas. Even the sub-hub pages employ the lateral navigation through a carousel of nicely illustrated features. One of the perennial weaknesses of mobile Web design has been the superficial designs. After a few surface screens of mobile-optimized content, many portals used to drop you into full Web pages of variable layouts. Maintaining a seamless look and feel throughout the content builds the user's confidence to keep drilling.  

This is not so true when it comes to the sponsored links in search results, however. Here we still get the usual hodgepodge of landing pages. Still, the search results for popular keywords are much improved. Do a run at Lady Gaga, for instance and you will get a nicely parsed page that has direct links to lyrics, albums and photos. Especially nice are the direct links to sub-topics included in the Wikipedia results. So you can drop directly into sections of her entry regarding fashion or discography. Again, we end up on the full Web version of Wikipedia rather than a mobile-optimized page, but the compression of relevant links in this design is admirable.  

One of the companies that has been quietly building mobile chops over the years is AOL. While its portal is not as dazzling as Yahoo's, it also makes good use of feature carousels for lateral browsing and some well-parsed search results. This is where AOL is also pushing its evolving content model of creating discrete vertical brands. Tapping into the lead stories will drive you to the mobile news from Politics Daily or Popeater, for instance. AOL is also cultivating its Cambio brand for teens with a very nicely crafted Web app that drops you into different content channels loaded with video.  

The AOL search results page lets you collapse and expand the listings in different categories (local, Web, images, etc.).  Both Yahoo and AOL, in fact, seem to have more efficient mobile search experiences than Google. Try Lady Gaga on Google and you still get that familiar long scroll of basic Web links topped by a cluster of images.  

MSN, too, is upping its mobile portal game. Somewhere between Yahoo and AOL in quality of experience, MSN lets you collapse and expand its main page categories. One click into the Videos or News categories and you get a lot of nice cross-navigation links for drilling deeper, moving quickly into a given vertical. The MSN piece to watch is really the Bing search engine, which has become quite strong, at least in its smartphone iteration. Doing the Gaga search, for instance, brings up a contextually relevant set of vertical search buckets like Products, Videos, etc. that fade in very smoothly when you tap the top line tabs.  

In theory, portals should be exceptionally relevant to the mobile platform. Compression of information is everything on mobile, so giving the user that one-stop shop for top-line news and entertainment headlines seems to be even more necessary in this age of the highly vertical app. Their reach should be broader and less hardware-dependent. HTML5 clearly empowers the portal with compelling functionality and smoothness.

And yet, I still wonder if users will use portals as entryways to mobile media. Is the whole portal concept behind us across all platforms, or does it have a chance at demonstrating its relevance on mobile?

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