The great web portal naming debate

There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.

– Phil Karlton

Actually, naming things isn’t only hard in computer science. It’s hard wherever new things are viewed in old ways or whenever there’s a question about what the new thing does.

Those that build websites and work on digital products and services tend to react against naming websites in ways that tells the user what the website is or does. Maybe there’s a familiarity bias there.

Giving a website a name such as ‘portal’ or ‘hub’ makes sense if you have to tell people what this thing is and what they can do with it. The Bodleian Library has the word library in it’s name so that you know that it’s a library. But Starbucks doesn’t need to include ‘coffee shop’ in it’s name because it has sufficient brand awareness among people who want to visit coffee shops. The OpenSea website explains that it is a marketplace, because it and NFT’s are quite new, whereas the Ebay website doesn’t have to explain that it’s a marketplace because it’s already well-known.

So, from a user experience perspective, if a website is new or it’s purpose uncertain, its helpful for the website to communicate whether it is a portal, marketplace, whatever. Sometimes, and sometimes by default, this means using the same language that is used internally by the organisation becomes the language that is used on the website to explain to users. It might be, through some strange coincidence, that the internal language is the same as users use and makes sense to them, but it’s best to test with real users to get the messaging right.

Deciding whether the website is a website, a microsite or a portal can be done by understanding whether the functionality and audience is specific, e.g. registered members and whether access is public or private. But that understanding doesn’t have to be surfaced on the website. That understanding serves a need within the organisation, but the users of the website have a different need. They need to know what the site does, especially if they are new to it.

So, in summary, it’s ok to use terms like ‘portal’ internally if it helps to clarify the purpose of the website within the organisation. And its good to ensure that, especially for new site and services, the website communicates what its for and what a user can do with it. Sometimes those two overlap, and sometimes they shouldn’t.