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What Features in a Portal?

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Geoff Butters analyses the features found in various types of portal, and includes a comparison with the planned features for the JISC Subject Portals.

EDNER - the formative evaluation of the UK higher education sector's Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER) - is a three-year project being undertaken by the Centre for Research in Library & Information Management (CERLIM) at the Manchester Metropolitan University and the Centre for Studies in Advanced Learning Technology (CSALT) at Lancaster University.  One strand of the project is to undertake an evaluation of the JISC Subject Portals.  As part of that work a systematic investigation of portal features was undertaken in the summer of 2002 to help develop a profile of features of JISC, institutional, and commercial portals.

Within the EDNER Project the term 'Portal' has a fairly tight definition as prescribed by the JISC 5/99 Programme and subsequently the Portal Development Programme.  The 5/99 Programme Call documentation, and more particularly the 'Town Meeting' held in London after the Call was announced, suggested that in essence:-

"A portal accepts requests from users and itself interrogates information services it believes may hold appropriate resources.  It sends queries to those services and accepts result sets.  It then processes those result sets (for example, by removing duplicates) and presents them to the user.  In essence the user never leaves the portal." [1]

This has subsequently been expanded to:-

"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 collates 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, single 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." [2].

In the wider community the term 'portal' is used far more freely to describe Web sites with varying degrees of functionality; for example:-

" Systems which gather a variety of useful information resources into a single, 'one stop' Web page, helping the user to avoid being overwhelmed by infoglut, or feeling lost on the Web." [3]

" .  .  an organising principal that brings like-minded businesses and customers together, to their mutual benefit.  Information is obtained, ads are seen, products are purchased, and everyone's happy." [4]

However, the thinking is changing, and the JISC definitions have developed over time.  One draft considered by the JISC- funded Subject Portals Project (SPP) [5] suggested:

" a portal is 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 etc.).  The resources made available via a portal are typically brought together from more than one source." [6]

Another suggests that a portal is a:

" network service that provides access to a range of heterogeneous network services, local and remote, structured and unstructured.  Such network services might typically include resource discovery services, email access and online discussion fora.  Portals are aimed at human end-users using common Web 'standards' such as HTTP, HTML, Java and JavaScript." [7]

 

For the purpose of this study a loose interpretation of the term has been accepted so as to be as inclusive as possible.

Methodology

An extensive sample of the literature on the subject of portals was scrutinised to gain an insight into what was being considered as the functionality that differentiated a portal from a simple Web page.  Examples of the most relevant literature consulted are included in the list of references [3-4] [ 8-25].  An initial list of features that might be found in a portal was then compiled from the features suggested in the literature.  Those features consisted mostly of what might be expected in a commercial portal as provided by popular search engines such as AltaVista, Excite and Yahoo!, or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as AOL, Freeserve and MicroSoft Network(MSN), plus some from specialist (or vertical) sites such as iVillage, LibraryHQ and Zdnet, and academic sites such as MyLibrary @ NCState (North Carolina State University) and MyUCLA (University of California at Los Angeles).  Added to this were portal features contained in a survey [26] conducted on behalf of the JISC-funded Subject Portals Project (SPP) [5].  The survey results included features suggested by academic information professionals for inclusion in an academic subject-based portal, and as such included several items deemed desirable but not necessarily yet provided in existing portals.

The resultant list of features was edited for duplication under different names, i.e. where different terminology had been used to describe the same feature.  Putting an interpretation on what someone had meant by a particular term, and whether they meant the same thing as another person using a similar term, was quite a difficult task, and some value judgements had to be made in order to avoid, as far as possible, ambiguity.  The problem of interpreting terminology arose again when actually checking sites for features where each site's meaning for a term could differ somewhat.  Again value judgements were made so as to be as consistent as possible.  However, there was one instance where the offerings of different sites were hardly the same: the feature 'travel news' in most instances consisted of news items about holidays or the prospects for national and international travel.  One US university site, however, didn't offer that kind of news, but under the title 'travel news' offered real-time up-to-the-minute traffic and public transport news for the local area.  This illustrates how terminology can be used with different nuances of meaning.

The features were grouped where possible into similar types.  Some groupings were fairly obvious:  e.g., the features 'chat', 'chat channels', 'instant messaging', 'computer conferencing', 'newsletter', 'message boards', 'discussion groups', 'ask an expert' and 'collaborative working'  all readily fell into the group 'Community Communication';  several varieties of news  - 'general', 'local', 'world', 'sport', 'weather', 'stock market',  - could all be grouped under 'News'.  In some cases, though, the grouping of the features was somewhat arbitrary and thus fairly meaningless, so the groupings are of limited significance:  the important matter was that a feature was listed for investigation.

During the investigation, several additional features were found that were deemed to be worth noting and added to the list as 'Additional features found'.  It is somewhat surprising that some of the features listed here had not previously been in the list, e.g. 'Job search' and 'Calendar of events', but their omission could again be the result of mis-interpretation of terminology.  Other additions are perhaps newer features, e.g. 'SMS text messaging' and 'TV listings'.  It should also be noted that sites add features from time to time.

Based on the literature review, a list of portals for possible analysis was produced.  The list included what various authors suggested were portals, whether or not the site owners described them as such.  Each of the sites on the list were subjected to a brief initial investigation to confirm their existence and suitability for inclusion in the analysis, as a result of which some sites were excluded.  For example, one site was excluded because it was no longer what it had used to be, (a site that was about pets in general had been taken over by a pet supermarket chain as their own); one had recently been taken over by another; the extent to which shopping malls offered services from the features list was found to be so very limited that they would not provide a useful comparison to the other sites; and some ISP sites (e.g. MSN) could not be thoroughly analysed without actually becoming a paying subscriber.

MyLibrary@NCState is the name given to software that was developed by Eric Lease Morgan [27] and originally implemented at North Carolina State University.  It has since been implemented at a number of other sites, and nine of these were included in the initial investigation.  As all of these were very similar to the original implementation, and all of them offered only what the underlying university library site offered, (albeit organised in a different manner), no others were included in the final list.  MyLibrary - Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is not an implementation of MyLibrary@NCState, having been developed independently at VCU, and was included.

That initial investigation resulted in a shorter list for thorough analysis.  Sites chosen were categorised into four types:  Search engine-based (six); Internet Service Provider (ISP) based (three); specialist (vertical) (six); and academic (four).  Where there was a UK and a US version of the site, the UK one was listed.  It was noted that UK and US versions are often somewhat different.

A matrix was constructed of the features list against the final sites list, and each site systematically investigated to find which of the features it offered.  For the most part particular features were available within the site itself, but in some cases a feature was offered but took the user out of the site  - i.e. to another site.  This was indicated in the matrix.  However, this was only applied to features that were actually offered within the portal; having moved to another site using a link in the portal, other features found on that site were not indicated as available from the portal.  Other cases arose where it was unclear whether a feature exactly matched something in the features list, and this too was indicated in the matrix.  A few cases were found where it could not be firmly established whether a feature was or wasn't there, and again this was indicated in the matrix.  As previously noted some additional features were found that were deemed to be worth noting and added to the list. A new feature having been found on one site, previously checked sites were re-checked for that additional feature in case it had been overlooked.  The analysis took place between the first week in June and the first week in October 2002.

Finally, for the purpose of comparison, a fifth category of portal was added:  the JISC-funded Subject Portals Project (SPP) [5] planned features.

Analysis of portal features

The sites that were investigated, are categorised into four types:-

Search Engine (SE) sites

AltaVista (UK) http://uk.altavista.com/
Excite (UK) http://www.excite.co.uk
LookSmart (UK) http://www.looksmart.co.uk/
Lycos (UK) http://www-uk.lycos.com/
Netscape (UK) http://www.netscape.co.uk/
My Netscape http://my.netscape.com/index2.psp

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) sites

AOL (UK) http://www.aol.co.uk/
BTopenworld http://www.btopenworld.com/default
Freeserve http://www.freeserve.com/

Specialist (vertical) sites

Fool.com (UK) http://www.fool.co.uk
iVillage  http://www.ivillage.co.uk/
LibraryHQ.com http://www.libraryhq.com
Zdnet (UK)http://www.zdnet.co.uk/
24 hour museum http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/
HERO http://www.hero.ac.uk/

Academic sites

The four academic portals are actually two 'MyLibrary' sites  -

and two 'institutional' sites  -

This distinction is important in some cases and has been made in the analysis when considering some of the features. The Subject Portals Project planned features category was added for comparison.

Features offered by the sites analysed

Sites differed considerably in what they offered, perhaps indicating that they were each aimed at a specific target market.  The full matrix is included as Appendix 2 [Excel spreadsheet].  A summary of the availability of features on the sites is as follows:

Utilities

Channels/Categories
See figs 1, 2 and 3 in Appendix 1.  Some sites offer a vast array (e.g. over 40), others offer only a handful:

  • All the Search Engines(SEs) except Excite, which is purely a directory service, all ISPs and specialist sites, one institutional site and one MyLibrary site.  MyLibrary @ VCU and MyUCLA do not.  Is included in SPP planned features.

Browseable Hierarchical Directories (See figs 4 and 5 in Appendix 1):

  • Most SEs and ISPs, one specialist site (iVillage), but none of the academic sites.

Email account facilities:

  • Some SEs, all ISPs, one specialist site (iVillage), both institutional sites, but not MyLibrary sites.

Address Book:

  • Some SEs and ISPs, none of the specialist sites, both institutional sites, but not MyLibrary sites.

Bookmark Manager:

  • One (surprisingly) of each of the SEs and ISPs and none of the specialist sites, but all of the academic sites.

Calculator:

  • Two of the SEs and MyLibrary @ NCState (where it is available on the underlying library site).

Calendar:

  • One each of the SEs, ISPs and specialist sites, two institutional and MyLibrary @ NCState (where it is available on the underlying library site).

Currency Exchange Rates:

  • Some SEs and ISPs, none of the specialist nor academic sites.

Diary/Planner:

  • Only one ISP and one institutional site.

Internet Telephony:

  • Only one ISP offered this directly at the time of the survey.

Access to Geographical Maps:

  • Three of the SEs, all ISPs and MyLibrary @ NCState (where it is available on the underlying library site).

People Finder:

  • One SE, one specialist site, both institutional sites and MyLibrary @ NCState (where it is available on the underlying library site).

Personal Information Storage Space:

  • Only MyUCLA offered this directly as a service to the user, as distinct from some of the other sites that requested personal information for their own purposes.

Language Translation (of Web pages) :

  • Only one SE (Alta Vista).

Web Space (for creating own Web site) :

  • Some SEs, all ISPs and one institutional site.

Zip Code/Post Code look-up:

  • One each of the SEs, ISPs and specialist sites (iVillage).

User Profiling / Content Filtering

Family Filtering (restricting access to material deemed unsuitable, especially for children) :

  • Some SEs and ISPs.  Specialist and academic sites would tend not to need this because of their specialisation.

Creation of User Profile(s) of interests:

  • Only MyLibrary @ VCU and MyUW offered this directly, and it is included in SPP planned features.  However, sites that offered some personalisation (see below) maintained settings between sessions, and so could be considered to be keeping a personal profile.

Personalisation (changing various aspects to suit oneself) :

  • Two SEs, two ISPs, one specialist and all academic sites offered this to some extent, and it is included in SPP planned features.  The need to do so for specialist sites is limited by the fact that they have a specialism.  The most common personalisable aspects are content, channels displayed, type of news, and display appearance.  Personalisation of links is most common in academic sites, and the capability to create a 'my journals' list is a feature of only MyLibrary sites.

Resource Discovery

Subject-specific (portal's specialisation) :

  • All the specialist sites offer some sort of resource discovery for their specialism, and it is included in SPP planned features.  This feature is not to be expected in other types of site.

Single Sign-on Access Management (automated access to all services for which a user is authorised through a single login to the portal) :

  • Not offered by any of the sites in this study, except MyLibrary @ VCU which offers a very limited kind.  Is included in SPP planned features.
  • This is a matter being addressed widely in the academic and commercial sectors.  Many solutions are being introduced in a variety of situations.  For example, the finance company egg plc now offers a single sign-on facility for all other bank accounts of their customers, and several portal products from commercial vendors offer a form of single sign-on.

Resource Descriptions:

  • One SE (LookSmart), all ISPs to some degree, some specialist sites and three academic sites.  Is included in SPP planned features.

Selected (Quality Assured (QA)) content:

  • QA is specifically claimed by one SE, two ISPs, three specialist sites, three academic sites and is included in SPP planned features.  However, some further explanation is necessary:
  • The SE LookSmart says in its help pages "Each Web site is reviewed for quality . . ", but this may only apply to specially selected sites and content, the presence of which is sometimes paid for by the resource provider: many other search results are from are from the web via Google and as such probably have not been reviewed by LookSmart.
  • ISP BTopenworld takes its search results from LookSmart and so by inference has the same QA.  Freeserve refers to partners being chosen because of their commitment to quality.
  • MyUCLA does not specifically claim any QA but the nature of the host institution infers QA to the user.

Browse Resources:

  • One SE (LookSmart), two ISPs, three of the specialist sites and three of the academic sites.

Search Bibliographic database:

  • The SEs do not provide this, but ISPs AOL and Freeserve have partner or associate sites that offer it.  Three of the academic sites offer it, and although UCLA does not offer it directly, it does allow access to the library site which does.  Is included in SPP planned features.

Search Citation Databases:

  • Only three of the academic sites, and is included in SPP planned features.

Search the local Web site (or in-house) :

  • Only available from one each of the SEs and ISPs, but is available from all but one specialist sites and all academic sites.

Search the local OPAC:

  • Fairly obviously only offered by the academic sites, and even there only indirectly through the institutional library site.

Search e-Journals:

  • The SEs do not provide this, but again ISPs AOL and Freeserve have partner or associate sites that offer this, and all the academic sites offer it.  Is included in SPP planned features.

Search Tables of Content (TOCs) :

  • Offered only by three of the academic sites, and is included in SPP planned features.

Cross-search multiple resources (a single search carried out across many resources simultaneously) :

  • Not offered by any sites in this study, except indirectly and in a very limited way by MyLibrary @ NCState via the underlying library site.  Is included in SPP planned features.

Search WWW:

  • With the exception of three of the specialist sites, all other sites offered this directly.  Often a third-party search engine is used.  In some cases the third party's search box is provided on the host site and it is obvious that the third party is being used.  In other cases, though, only when the results set is returned does it become obvious that some or all of them are from the third party.  In the case of LookSmart, (and thus BTopenworld whose search results come from LookSmart), a number of hits in the search results are from 'featured' or 'selected' (possibly paid-for) listings that have been ' . . reviewed for quality'.  They are followed by 'related' results from Google.

Locate, Access/Request, and Deliver/Procure:

  • These are concepts that do not fit well with SEs, ISPs or most specialist sites because they are terms peculiar to the information profession.  Consequently, of the sites in this study, 24 Hour Museum and the academic ones offer these features most obviously, and they are included in SPP planned features.  However, almost all sites offer some sort of access to resources.

Alternative Search Engines (access to search engines other than the site's standard one) :

  • Eight of the sites offered an alternative search engine to their standard one.

News/News Feeds

In the News/Headlines:

  • All but one of the SEs, all ISPs, but only one each of the specialist and academic sites.  Is included in SPP planned features.

General news - world:

  • All but one of the SEs, all ISPs, but only one each of the specialist and academic sites.

General news - local:

  • Only MyNetscape and MyUW.  As MyNetscape is US-based, even when subscribed to and accessed from the UK, all the news is 'local' to the USA.

Subject-specific (portal's specialisation) news:

  • This is, and can only be, offered by the specialist sites, although both MyUW and MyLibrary Library @ NCState offer news specific to their respective institutions.  Is included in SPP planned features.

Weather forecast:

  • Offered by most SEs and ISPs plus specialist iVillage, and academic MyUW as part of its local news.

Weather news:

  • Some of the sites that offer a weather forecast also provide other weather news.

Stock market prices and stock market news:

  • These are offered by half of SEs, all the ISPs, and specialist Fool.com whose specialism is financial, but not by the rest of the specialists nor by the academic sites.

Sports results:

  • Offered by two each of the SEs and ISPs, none of the specialists and only MyUW of the academic sites.

Sports news:

  • Surprisingly, this feature is offered by three each of the SEs and ISPs; that is one of each offers sports news but not sports results, presumably because 'news' does not have to be as up-to-the-minute as 'results'.

Entertainment news:

  • Offered by most SEs in some form, all ISPs, and specialist iVillage, but not the academic sites.

Travel news:

  • General travel news is offered by three SEs and two ISPs.  Under this heading, MyUW offers local traffic and public transport news.

Job vacancy ads/announcements:

  • This feature was available on a few of the non-academic sites.  What was more common was a 'Job Search' facility, which is described under 'Additional features found' below.

Message of the day:

  • This was only offered as such by MyNetscape, although other headline-type features could be considered to be similar to this on many of the sites.

Alerting Service (to new or updated resources) :

  • Offered only by MyNetscape (but news feeds almost all US-based), HERO, both MyLibrary sites, and is included in SPP planned features.  Each of these services was selected by user profile, and alerts were sent by email or Web site message.

Community Communication

Chat (real-time) (Internet Relay Chat) :

  • Three SEs, all the ISPs, specialist iVillage and academic MyUCLA.

Chat Channels:

  • The same three SEs and ISPs, but not by iVillage or MyUCLA.

Instant Messaging:

  • Only two SEs and all ISPs.

Computer Conferencing:

  • Not offered as such by any, but could be construed as just a specific use of 'Chat'.

Newsletter / eZine / Ijournal:

  • One SE, one ISP, three specialists and one Institutional site.  MyUCLA offered access to a newsletter not actually run by the site.  None of these had any peer review process.

Bulletin / Message boards:

  • One SE, two ISPs, three specialists and one each of the MyLibrary and Institutional sites.

Online Discussion Groups / NewsGroups:

  • No SEs, all ISPs, three specialists and one Institutional site.

Find / ask an expert:

  • Offered as such only by iVillage.

Collaborative working:

  • Not offered by any of the sites in this study.

Subject-specific (portal's specialisation)

(By definition, this category is more likely to be offered by the specialist sites.)

ePrint archive:

  • Not offered by any site in this study.

FAQs:

  • Specialist site (HERO).

Funding sources:

  • Two specialist sites (LibraryHQ and HERO)
  •  

Glossary of subject terms:

  • One specialist site (HERO).

Links to related Web sites:

  • Three specialist sites.

Register of Research:

  • Offered indirectly only by one specialist (HERO).

Software Plugins:

  • No subject-specific software offered.

Subject idiosyncrasies:

  • Only offered by one specialist (Fool.com).

Advertising

Adverts - general:

  • Carried by all SEs and ISPs, two specialists, but no academic sites.

Adverts - Subject-specific (portal's specialisation) :

  • Only applicable to specialist sites, and three of those carried them.

Adverts - classified:

  • Only carried by one SE and one specialist.

Conference announcements:

  • Only two specialists (LibraryHQ and HERO), and is included in SPP planned features.

Other (non-leisure) events announcements:

  • Only two specialists (LibraryHQ and HERO), one academic site (MyUW), and is included in SPP planned features.

Entertainment events announcements:

  • Provided specifically only by three SEs, one ISP and MyUW.

Education-based

Courses / Course announcements:

  • Indirectly by one ISP (BTopenworld) and one specialist (HERO), and directly by one specialist (Zdnet (UK)) and one Institutional site (MyUW).

Web-based learning resources:

  • Indirectly by one ISP (Freeserve), directly by one specialist (HERO) and one Institutional (MyUW), and is included in SPP planned features.

'Courseware ' - course-specific information:

  • Not offered by any sites in this study.

Library account, Library borrowing record, and ILL requests access:

  • Only applicable to academic sites of which three offered access to these, directly or indirectly.

Leisure

Horoscopes:

  • Two SEs, all ISPs and one specialist (iVillage).

Online Shopping:

  • Most SEs, all ISPs, and three specialists.

Interviews/chat with celebrities:

  • One ISP and occasionally by specialist iVillage.

Miscellaneous services

Book reviews:

  • None.

Online surveys:

  • None.

Budget-management software – corporate, - personal:

  • Something similar by specialist Fool.com

Organisation chart:

  • Indirectly by MyLibrary @ NCState.

Press release submission:

  • None

CV submission:

  • By one SE, two ISPs, two specialists, but no academic.

e-Commerce:

  • Only by Zdnet

Online banking / finance:

  • One SE, two ISPs, and one specialist.

Assistance with site use

Support and guidance and immediate help / help pages:

  • Almost all of the sites provided this in some form or other.  In many cases the on-screen instructions were sufficiently clear (for example, there was an explanation as to what will happen on clicking a link to count as this feature); sometimes assistance was available via a chat or instant messaging system; and sometimes via a telephone help line.  Also in many cases help pages were immediately available, and are included in SPP planned features.  However, in the cases of one SE (Excite) and one specialist (24 Hour Museum) neither of these features could be found.

Your Librarian (access to a librarian specialising in the users' subject area) :

  • Not really applicable to SEs, ISPs or specialists.  Provided by both MyLibrary sites and indirectly by MyUW.

Site map:

  • Not provided by any of the SEs nor the academic sites.  Only one ISP (Freeserve), and five of the specialist sites (24 Hour Museum being the one that doesn't) do specifically provide a site map.

Feedback option:

  • Offered specifically by almost all sites in this study, and is included in SPP planned features.  Those that did not (LookSmart, Netscape (UK) and Freeserve) had contact details, but did not actually encourage feedback as such.

Additional features found not listed above

Job search:

  • Two SEs, three ISPs and three specialist sites, but not by the academic sites, which did not offer job vacancy advertising either.

SMS text messaging:

  • One the SEs, two ISPs and one of the specialists.  This is a relatively new feature and may well be introduced by other sites after this study;  in fact one of the ISPs introduced this feature during the period of this study

TV listings:

  • Three of the SEs, all the ISPs, one specialist site (iVillage) and indirectly by MyUW.

Online resource submission (the ability to suggest or submit online resources for inclusion in the portal) :

  • Only specialist 24 Hour Museum.

Games:

  • Three of the SEs, all of the ISPs and two of the specialist sites.

Searching via a map:

  • One of the SEs and two of the specialist sites.

Calendar of events:

  • Two specialist sites and one each of the MyLibrary and institutional sites.

Counselling on-line:

  • An innovative feature offered by MyUCLA.

Conclusions

A very few years ago portals were seen as promising to realise the idea of a one-stop shop, where users would opt for the one portal of choice.  However, it was noted during this study that the more features a site offered, the more congested the screen could be.  It is not intended to discuss this further here except to note that some sites dealt with this matter better than others.  However, it is likely that if a portal was to attempt to provide 'all things for all people'  -  and certainly if it attempted to provide the majority of the functionality listed here  -  there might be too much on one screen and too many channels to choose from.  Thus no single portal is likely to serve all purposes.  Different portals will require suitable sets of features as appropriate to the job in hand.

Chris Awre and Alicia Wise remark:

'Portals are seen by many as the way to open doors on the Web to information and knowledge.  Alongside this consensus of sorts, though, the debate on what a portal is and how portals can best be developed continues.' [28]

Clearly the concept of portals is still developing and there remains a lot of uncertainty as to the products which will, in the end, attract and keep the interest of users.

References

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  17. Ketchell, D. S., Too Many Channels: Making sense out of portals and personalisation, Information Technology in Libraries, 19(4) December 2000.
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  19. Stoner, M, Getting Personal, Currents, March 2000. http://www.case.org/currents/2000/March/Stoner.cfm
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Author Details

Geoff Butters
Senior Research Fellow CERLIM
Dept of Information and Communications Manchester Metropolitan University.

Email: g.butters@mmu.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.cerlim.ac.uk/main/staff.html

 

 

Date published: 
30 April 2003

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How to cite this article

Geoff Butters. "What Features in a Portal?". April 2003, Ariadne Issue 35 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue35/butters/


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