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MSN: 'The Portal's Not Dead'

REDWOOD CITY, CALIF. -- Portals are so twentieth century. Or are they?

Joanne Bradford, chief media officer for Microsoft's MSN site, is brushing aside any criticism that online portals have seen their best days. Speaking at VentureWire's Consumer Technology Innovations conference here today, she said the portal concept, and MSN in particular, are alive, well and getting plenty of Microsoft's investment money.

Asked if portals were "dying a slow death," Bradford said quite the opposite. "Everything is looking more like a portal these days if you look at Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. I think there's a reverse portal phenomenon going on where you stuff the tail back in the head and make it mean something."

In other words, while a lot of social networking sites carry more personalized, user-generated and long tail content (referring to the theory of niche sites creating their own markets), they're all trying to organize content like a portal does.

"People want things filtered for them and put together in a way that's meaningful to their life, whether that's around friends or items you want to buy," said Bradford. "We really think people want you to do it [organize content] for them." Bradford further claimed that most consumers don't want to set up home pages, such as iGoogle, myYahoo or even feeds on Facebook. "There's a great unanswered consumer need there," she said, to automate the process of giving users the content they're looking for.

If Microsoft can answer that need, it could go a long way to helping the company catch its rivals. Yahoo, at 137 million unique visitors, leads the top spot on Comscore's list of the top 50 Web properties in the U.S. for October. Google sites are a close second at 132 million. Time Warner (which includes AOL) is third with a bit over 121 million with Microsoft sites nipping at its heels with 120.5 million.

Video is a huge initiative at MSN. A big focus for Bradford's group is getting as much video as it can on every page with some hits and misses along the way. "We've learned Al Gore and Madonna don't do as well as Shikara," she said. A surprise hit: a show about missing people. Bradford said it drew 5 million page views in a day.

Partnerships are also part of the strategy, such as a deal announced last summer that adds the Farecast airfare monitoring service to MSN Travel. "You can find out if you're getting screwed (on price) or not," said Bradford. "That's relevant to people."

Directions on Microsoft analyst Matt Rosoff said Microsoft's considerable resources lets it keep pushing forward with MSN despite failures in strategic areas that few other companies could afford. "Microsoft's consumer online initiatives are fragmented with a lot of different brands," Rosoff told InternetNews.com. "They're losing a billion dollars a year online. A lot of that has been due to investments, but this is an expensive business for Microsoft to be in. Their current strategy is a shotgun approach to try a lot of things and see what works."

Bradford said her team is constantly improving the underlying technology behind MSN and introducing new features. She was coy about details but said people that have seen what's in the works for release sometime over the next year or two have been "blown away." Bradford did offer one insight into what Microsoft might have in mind. "I don't think the experiences of Amazon and eBay have been really brought forward in a portal," she said.

As for MSN's critics: "I don't mind if people say the portal is dead; it lets us experiment away from the spotlight."