Advertisers cannot rely on Net’s mass-market reach

Not long ago, all the major search engines seemed to go through a collective rebirth, in an effort to move away from the commodity service of indexing other Websites to creating their own little universe of content. They became portals.

There was a realisation that users simply passing through a Website could generate advertising revenue, but users who stayed could be claimed as “loyal” customers (at least in the future) and thus the foundation of a vast company valuation.

Following the search engines came a new breed of specialist portal – for women, for sport and so on.

However, recent research from the US challenges their supposed dominance and indicates use of the big portals is levelling off. I believe these monoliths are being attacked from two sides.

Firstly, and rather ironically, the very success of the big sites with their absurd market valuations has attracted new players online.

The barriers to entry are in reality none too daunting. Just choose an audience, raise a few hundred thousand quid, unleash a barrage of PR and bingo – you’re on the gravy train.

The other factor in the apparent drying up of traffic to portal sites is that annoying thing called the consumer.

Just when you think you have got them hooked and notched up against your Nasdaq valuation, they get all disloyal and disappear.

You bring them online, educate them, reassure them, nurture them and how do they repay you? They get all cocksure and start going directly to the small specialist sites they like, the sites that you directed them to in the first place.

If you think about it, it’s only to be expected. The Web is like a foreign country you visit – the first time you go through a nice comfy package deal, but it’s not long before you want more adventure and turn from being a tourist into an independent traveller.

For advertisers it may be a lot more work to find the audience, but the more fragmented this medium gets, the better. If you want a broadcast medium, stick with posters, but if it’s niche targeting you want, then look online.

Charlie Dobres is chief executive of i-level (e-mail: charlie.dobres@ i-level.com)

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