War of portals

Print edition : June 10, 2000
ANUPAMA KATAKAM

IF indiainfo.com puts up an advertising hoarding at a city traffic junction or hoarding spot, almost overnight indya.com, eIndia.com, 123India.com and Rediff.com will position their advertisements at the same spot. There are half a dozen portals on India offering similar content and services and all vying for the same consumer. They approach the same advertisers for revenue and all of them provide news, online shopping facilitate and free email services, and have a host of sites - on health, women, sports, travel, cinema and so on. Therefore, apart from the name not much differentiates one from the other.

Given that in another year's time the less successful among the portals will be sifted from the winners the scene is set for the finale. Against this background, Frontline spoke to the heads of a few dotcoms and also studied a few better known portals before concluding that content, brand positioning and business model will finally decide who will succeed.

Rediff.com was the first to start what is known in Internet jargon as a business-to-consumer (B2C) site, one that focusses mainly on providing content on India. According to Rohit Verma, brand marketing head, Rediff.com, "Our history of firsts has made us a tried and trusted Website in the country and helped us establish our leadership in technology, market driving activity and customer services." In the ongoing competition to be better and different, rediff.com has started language editions in Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, thus catering to a much larger segment than other portals. In addition, a special U.S. edition, obviously for the non-resident Indian population, is on.

Although Rediff.com has well-known columnists writing for several websites on its portal, it is now an open secret that columnists sell the same pieces to several portals. It is much too expensive to hire them exclusively, says a person who works for an India portal. Of the lot, Rediff.com's content is not based on news agency reports alone. Several breaking news stories are written either by their correspondents or people who work as stringers for them, says Rohit Verma.

A press report on May 24 said that rediff.com has recorded a Rs.1 million loss and that it planned to raise money from an Initial Public Offering (IPO) which was long overdue. The entire proceeds from its ADR (American Depository Receipts) issue would go towards beefing up content, a recent report said. Verma says Rediff.com gets approximately 1.3 million unique visitors per month and recorded 80 million page view in April. It also caters to a large number of NRIs, according to him.

Sunil Rajashekar of indiainfo.com feels that content-driven portals need to invest heavily in brand building. "We need to build a community on the site and only content will ensure that like minded people crowd your web-space." Rajshekar, who has a publishing background, believes that the quality and credibility of indiainfo.com's content will be the benchmark for others. Owing to the recent link-up with India Abroad News Service, this dotcom has been able to provide articles by popular columnists. News agencies are its source for daily news and this is updated every two or three hours.

Indya.com entered the fray a little later but with a bang. Taking over the front page of The Times of India's Sunday edition as part of their launch apparently cost them a few crores. Continuing in the manner they arrived, indya.com carried out an advertising blitz which has left no one in doubt of who and what they are. Yet, for all its hype the content leaves much to be desired. A news story posted on Sri Lanka on May 23, for instance, was obviously put together by extracting paragraphs from newspapers or agency copies. The story lacked flow and the editing was shabby. However, indya.com CEO Sunil Lulla says that its unique selling point (USP) is the content. "Our content is a mile long and a mile deep. We will have width, wisdom and credibility to offer users." While the design and layout seem user-friendly, there is not much substance. Perhaps these are teething problems.

Offering salaries beginning at 1.2 lakh per annum for a fresher to Rs.35,000 a month for a contents head, both with stock options, Indya.com is snapping up people from the journalist fraternity, new graduates and anyone and everyone who has any talent in design and writing. Salaries given with stock options have obviously made it a better career option than a traditional company.

123India.com, unlike others, focusses predominantly on the search facility. Similar in design, to the international search engine yahoo.com, 123India.com provides comprehensive and relevant information in search results. With several categories to select from, the search facility is made much easier. While it does seem to be on the right track, it could be finetuned further. For instance, searching for the Bannerghatta wildlife park in Karnataka was easy enough. But it would have been easier if the search had given a choice of States and then the area. After all, how many people would know where Bannerghatta is?

It would be interesting to watch what eIndia.com would continue to provide. For now, it provides rudimentary, superficial and outdated content. The "Exclusives" category has stories that carry January datelines.

The bottomline is that these horizontal B2C portals lack quality in content. These dotcoms are completely dependent on the news agencies for content. Would advertisers really want to position their clients' products on these sites? If they don't, where will the revenue and visibility come from? Which in the end will survive? Indya.com's Lulla says: "Even when our site was 'Under Construction' we had advertisers - such is people's faith in our dotcom." Rediff.com's Verma says that his portal has the largest number of advertisers, while indiainfo.com believes it will soon have the most. Every other week, these dotcoms spring a new competitive device; the latest was the search facility. Indiatimes.com believes it is better than Yahoo.com. To further its accessibility and visibility, indiainfo.com, for example, has tied up with Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) to be the home page on their subscribers' computers. Internet service provider Satyamonline.com has done the same thing. All these point to either the beginning or the end of a portal war.

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