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When you open up your Internet browser, what’s the first thing you see? Many people opt for personalized start pages, portal-like websites that let you pick and choose the content you want, such as news, weather or updates from social networking sites like Facebook. You can add widgets to your start page, and even create widgets for others to use on their pages.

These sites incorporate Ajax programming, which lets you easily customize the page, moving content from one area to another, while also speeding up the page’s load time. These start pages are popular with a lot of folks, but they’ve never worked for me for a variety of reasons (I’ll get to those in a moment).

First, the back story. Personalized start pages have been around for several years but really took off in 2006, when several players appeared on the scene, among them Netvibes (which Mark reviewed back in 2006) and Pageflakes. That same year Google launched their own personalized start page called iGoogle, with the first widgets added to the page around that year’s World Cup. Since then, more and more services have appeared on the scene, with mixed results.

So why haven’t I become a regular user of personalized start pages? And why haven’t they become successful businesses? Let me count the ways:

1. Widget appeal is fleeting.

I must admit I’m not a fan of widgets, those mini-applications that run on social networking sites, blogs and start pages. The concept seems really cool for a couple of hours, but that’s about how long they’ve lasted for me. On iGoogle, many of the widgets I originally installed don’t work anymore, and others, such as games, take way too long to load in the first place. While I agree that they can be useful, they just aren’t useful enough to keep me coming back to a start page.

2. Too much me in one place.

The idea of updating or checking other people’s updates from social networking sites or reading feeds from newspapers on a start page brings us back to the topic of aggregation. It’s a subject I’ve covered before in a previous post about social aggregation services such as FriendFeed. Instead of visiting various sites, you can use social networks and read the news without leaving your start page.

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Pageflakes’ various widgets and offerings

The offer of centralizing information in one place is catching on as sites such as Twitter, Flickr, etc., have included this functionality seamlessly when you sign up. In theory, I see the appeal of having everything I follow online in one central place. But a start page can’t accommodate all the things I read and do online without becoming overwhelming. I tried adding all the things I cared about to Netvibes and Pageflakes start pages and it ended up looking like something I’d rather run away from than embrace. Like my experience with FriendFeed, it’s too much of me in one place for me to handle.

3. They seem like features, not stand-alone businesses.

Two years after the onset of the personalized start page bubble, most of these services are still around. But I wonder for how long. From a business standpoint, the beauty of these services is that they are content portals without having to provide any of the content, which is funneled in from other sources. But as stand-alone businesses — as opposed to a feature, such is what iGoogle is to Google — they don’t seem to have much traction. Recently, one of the more popular services, Pageflakes, ran into financial trouble /and was acquired by Live Universe.

Start pages built from the ground up can’t seem to compete with the big boys such as My Yahoo and iGoogle, so I wonder how long the variety in this space will last. For many people, it’s just too easy to use a service already integrated into a suite of services they already use — provided by Google or Yahoo. Plus, as TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld wrote: “What will the half-life of start pages be in a Friendfeed world?” Schonfeld noted that:

comScore measured only 50,000 unique U.S. visitors [for Pageflakes] in March 2008, compared to 1.4 million for competitor Netvibes. iGoogle had 7.4 million U.S. visitors in March, and My Yahoo had 19 million.

4. I can’t find a real use for them.

I’m always in such a hurry to find what I want when I go online, and I’m a creature of habit. So when I use one of these personalized start pages, I end up ignoring what’s there and just cutting to chase with a Google search or a visit to my RSS news-feed reader. As for using it to get news, well, that’s what the feed reader is for, and it does the job a lot more effectively.

On the Other Hand…

There are some reasons why these services might just stick around despite my resistance. Among them is the customized media diet we are getting more and more used to these days, and the fact that readers are less attracted to stories than they are to headlines. Here are a few reasons personalized start pages might just catch fire.

1. People gravitate to aggregation.

I assumed that people who work on the Internet, like me, would have less of an interest in these services than people who only occasionally consult the web for news and entertainment, so I asked a couple of other people what they thought.

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Thematic widgets on iGoogle

I posted a question to my Twitter followers: “How many of you use these services and why?” I found quite a few people who use and enjoy personalized start pages for a variety of reasons. Among them were the ability to update their statuses on services like Twitter directly from the start pages, or put only the most important news to them in one place, while using RSS feed readers to get less important news.

Some people said that start pages influenced and streamlined the way they interact with other sites. For instance, updating on Netvibes means you don’t have to visit the Twitter website, but seeing a headline often compels you to click through to read the whole news story on the source site.

2. The trend toward me-focused media.

Some people want less editorial intervention and more of themselves in the media they consume. In contemplating the appeal of personalized start pages, I couldn’t help but compare it to the draw of a D.I.Y. magazine or newspaper. Early versions of personalized online papers have been around since the ’90s, with notable projects such as CRAYON leading the way.

The concept of The Daily Me — personalized news publications built around one’s own interest — dovetails nicely with personalized start pages. Services like customizable news site DailyMe.com or The New York Times’ MyTimes are more news-oriented than the start pages I’ve mentioned, but also attempt to deliver highly customized content.

3. Our love for snacking on headlines, not stories.

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about how our inability to wait and our short attention spans — possibly made shorter by high-speed Internet, tabbed browsing and a seemingly endless stream of Web 2.0 sites. Instead of longer, more in-depth stories, studies show that what most readers want these days are news bites and headlines.

This trend toward brevity might be a good thing for the personalized start page, which serves up just that: a headline and a two- to four-line intro. Sites such as Pageflakes make it extra easy to get the point of a news piece without actually having to read it. If the headline reads “John Mayer’s Ex ‘Happy’ About His New Romance,” a mere mouse-over of the text gives a subhead telling you who the ex is and who the new romance is. I guess with stories like this, you don’t need anything more than that — and really, who has time for more? (Uh, except for our long-attention-span readers at MediaShift, of course.)

What do you think? Do you use personalized start pages? Why or why not? What do they provide that you don’t get from just visiting a news site or a social networking site — or using a RSS reader? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a writer, blogger and marketer, who also covers Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

Pageflakes image by Paul Jacobson and Christ and Deep Thoughts widgets image by Manuel W., both on Flickr.

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