Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Towards a Typology for Portals

Paul Miller looks at some of the services we call portals, and argues for better words to describe them.

Regular readers of Ariadne and related publications possibly feel more than a little overwhelmed by the current deluge of portal-related literature; a deluge for which my colleagues and I on the PORTAL Project [1] must of course accept some responsibility.

Nevertheless, with Gartner and others pointing to continued interest in enterprise portals amongst the business community, the headlong rush to ‘portalise’ everything from the Post Office to the Resource Discovery Network (RDN), and figures from the Campus Computing Project [2] suggesting that over 40% of US universities either had or were building an institutional portal in 2002, the portal in its various forms is clearly going to be with us for a while!

Earlier this summer, I was invited to speak at the British Museum by the Historic Environment Information Resources Network (HEIRNET) [3]. Their conference, Opening Doors: web portals and the historic environment, conference aimed to place exciting and innovative developments in the cultural sector such as HEIRPORT [4] and Canmore [5] in context, and to look at further ways in which a wealth of heritage information could be delivered to an interested and increasingly knowledgeable public.

I took the opportunity to think a bit about all the different services that we call portals, and sought to clarify the space a little by categorising the different types of ‘portal’ that I saw [6].

This short article begins to take those initial musings further, and removes the rather weak type of thingummy from the set I presented to the conference. I hope that it will play a role in tightening up our thinking about, (to misquote Ian Dolphin), ‘the services formerly known as portals’, and look forward to continued debate in this area.

The purely presumed primacy of the portal

Before spending the rest of this paper arguing that x, y and the Royal Mail’s dreadful Web site are not portals, it is probably important to come right out and state unequivocally that I most definitely do not feel that portals are ‘best’. This paper is not about clearing out the hangers-on and usurpers of terminology in order to preserve the Elysian ideal of portal-ness for converts to the one true way of doing things. Far from it. Rather, the paper is a heartfelt plea that we simply call a spade a spade, a trowel a trowel, and a JCB a JCB, in preference to labelling all of them with whatever happens to be the name of the currently fashionable earth-moving implement (something carrying Ground Force or Time Team branding, presumably?).

In this paper, we’ll look at Web sites, at gateways, at portals, and at some other terms for our diverse information collection, collation, aggregation, integration or presentation services. Like our earth-moving implements, each has a place, each can be very good at whatever it is intended to do, and each is not necessarily at all suitable for a different task. Imagine, for example, re-potting a flower with a JCB or clearing a construction site with a trowel.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, yet another portal!

Look around you. They’re everywhere. Everyone who is anyone has a portal, even if in reality that means no more than paying some graphic designer an insane amount of money to knock up a new graphic for your old Web site that says ‘Portal’. We can only assume that, for the corporate sector at least, someone at PwC, Accenture, KPMG, McKinsey or one of the others decided that portals were cool and started sticking them into their PowerPoint as another thing you could pay them to build for you, in order to turn your company around, and make it world-beating. Before we knew it, the portal plague was out of the lab, replicating and mutating like anything.

More seriously, portalising was probably perceived to be one of the easiest and most visible ways in which an organisation could demonstrate itself to be a fully fledged proponent of The 21st Century Way, customer/ user/ client/ staff/ whatever-facing, rather than silo-ised, ruled by process, procedure and the paper trail.

Well, it’s not that simple. All those different sets of functionality blithely called ‘portal’, all those proponents to be your one and only “One-Stop Shop” to absolutely everything, all those Web pages comprising no more than links to other sites, all those downright bad sites calling themselves portals have simply diluted the value of the term, and mean that any hope our end-users might ever have had of knowing what one was, and why it’s different to something else, went out the window some time ago.

Good sites calling themselves portals without offering portal functionality disappoint their users unnecessarily, by failing to deliver on expectations. Good portals (and they are many) get lost in the morass. The dross, as elsewhere on the Internet, continues to exist. Does anyone benefit?

So… when is a portal not a portal?

I’ve visited some of the definitions of portals in papers before now, but need to do so again here, briefly, to see if we can capture the Essence of Portal. With that, we can then look at what is, and what is not, a portal and begin to work out where various types of service fit into our emerging typology.

In the context of the JISC’s Information Environment Architecture [7], Andy Powell of UKOLN describes a portal as being:

“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, buying plane tickets, booking hotel rooms, etc.). The resources made available via a portal are typically brought together from more than one source.
In the context of the JISC Information Environment (IE), portals typically focus on supporting the end-user in their learning and/or research activities by providing personalised discovery services across multiple, heterogeneous content providers. The key technologies that support interoperability between JISC IE portals and content providers are Z39.50, OAI Protocol for Metadata Harvesting and RDF Site Summary (RSS), SOAP and UDDI.” [8]

Writing in the JISC’s portals FAQ [9], Andy and JISC’s Chris Awre say that

“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 collate 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, common 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.”

Within PORTAL, we tend to simply say that a portal is

“a layer which aggregates, integrates, personalises and presents information, transactions and applications to the user according to their role and preferences.”

From these, and other, definitions, the key points would appear to be the portal’s ability to offer customisation, personalisation and integration of content and services drawn from a range of sources. Other systems, of course, also offer such functionality, but maybe only a portal can meaningfully offer all three?

In the presentation at the British Museum, I suggested a basic four-part classification; Web site, gateway, thingummy and portal. Although crude, this initial classification would appear to offer the outline of a way in which different types of service might be classified and labelled, enabling creators and users to share a much better idea of what we are discussing.

Web Sites

Web sites, I suggested, represent the basic delivery of online content. Their defining characteristics might be said to be their availability on the Internet, their visibility (more or less!) via a standard Web browser, and their markup as HTML/XHTML text with associated embedded images or sound. Finally, although Web sites of course employ HTML’s mechanism of hyperlinking from one page to another, their focus tends to be inward-looking; links from one part of a site to another, or out to external resources that help to illustrate whatever point the site is trying to make.


Readers of Ariadne will, of course, be familiar with Gateways in the form of the Hubs of the Resource Discovery Network (RDN). Gateways like these are collections of links and pointers to content of value, mostly elsewhere on the Web, and generally within a single defined topic or small set of topics. Their defining characteristics are that they are primarily a collection of descriptions of resources, rather than the resources themselves, and that the bulk of those resources tend to be held elsewhere and belong to others. Typically, the resources being described tend to be Web sites.


The poorly-named thingummy adds a degree of complexity to the concept of Gateway, and is demonstrated by services such as the historic environment community’s HEIRPORT [4]. Like the Gateway, a thingummy provides links and pointers to content of value, but introduces a capability to search the content of the resource referred to. Indeed, the thingummy may further be capable of cross-searching the content of more than one resource. For example, a Gateway might describe the online holdings of the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and provide a URL for their Web sites. A thingummy, on the other hand, could also offer the user an opportunity to search the British Museum’s online catalogue without the need to visit the British Museum’s Web presence.

Clearly, the terminology needs some work, though. I am not aware of a good term for this Gateway-on-steroids, and would offer the rather linguistically depressing “Deep Search service” until something better is proposed.

Incidentally, it is products in this area that tend most to adopt the terminology of portal, especially amongst library automation and learning environment vendors. Although there are exceptions, the majority of their ‘portals’ appear in reality to be Deep Searchers.


Whilst there appears to be a clear layering of increased functionality from Gateway to Deep Search, the Portal is actually something quite different. It may well incorporate elements of Gateway functionality, but the principal motivation for the portal is something quite different; the delivery of a personal service, drawing upon content and functionality from a number of underlying sources.

Defining characteristics of the Portal, as we have said, are that it is customisable, personalisable, and capable of aggregation, integration (Single Sign-On, for example?), and the embedding of external transactional services such as those currently in favour amongst Government departments.

Presumably the typology need not end here, as there are further services to be defined and built beyond the portal. It is also worth stressing that the current typology is not for four neat units, but rather for a continuum reaching from the most basic of Web sites to the most personalised of portals. Most resources will lie somewhere along that continuum, whilst few will be capable of unambiguous association with just one of the definitions.

Staying Informed

There are several mailing lists and Web sites devoted to discussion of portal issues. One that is extremely valuable for those working in UK Further or Higher Education is the

list on JISCmail.

To join this list, send a message to


with the body of the message reading

join portals Your_Firstname Your_Lastname


join portals Paul Miller


  1. The Presenting natiOnal Resources To Audiences Locally (PORTAL) project is at
  2. The Campus Computing Project is at http://www.campuscomputing.net/
  3. The Historic Environment Information Resources Network (HEIRNET) is at http://www.britarch.ac.uk/HEIRNET/
  4. HEIRPORT is at http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/heirport/
  5. The National Monuments Record of Scotland is available online at http://www.rcahms.gov.uk/index.html
    Information on Canmore can be obtained at http://www.rcahms.gov.uk/canmoreintro.html
  6. My paper, Portal Proliferation: Good, Bad, or Just Confused?, is available at
  7. The JISC’s Information Environment Architecture is described at
  8. The JISC Information Environment Architecture’s FAQ on portals is at
  9. The JISC’s Portals FAQ is at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=ie_portalsfaq


UKOLN is funded by Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives & Libraries, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the United Kingdom’s Further and Higher Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the Universities of Bath and Hull where staff are based.

The Presenting natiOnal Resources To Audiences Locally (PORTAL) Project is a joint activity of UKOLN and the e-Services Integration Group at the University of Hull, funded under the JISC’s Focus on Access to Institutional Resources (FAIR) Programme.

Author Details

Paul Miller
Interoperability Focus

Email: p.miller@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: www.ukoln.ac.uk/interop-focus/

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Article Title: “Towards a typology for portals”
Author: Paul Miller
Publication Date: 30-October-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue 37
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue37/miller/