Portal Websites: The Great Content Divide

Time portal on Star Trek: The Original Series.

Do you know where your portal website will take you?

In the Star Trek universe, a "portal" is a doorway to another dimension, connecting two points in space-time. In higher ed, a portal is just as fantastic — an internal website intended to better target users, remove content clutter and improve content governance. Voila! Well, maybe.

Portal websites aim to meet these goals by dividing content directed at external audiences (such as prospective students, parents and media) and internal audiences (such as current students, faculty, and alumni). Unfortunately, portal websites often cause more problems than they solve.

Portal websites can be effective, but we must tread carefully.

Without a holistic content plan for how your external public website and internal portal website work together, you’re taking a risk not unlike stepping through a Star Trek portal, blindly hoping you end up where you want to go.

Why We Love Portal Websites

To some, the idea of using a portal to divide your website by audience type may seem unthinkable, while to others, portal websites are synonymous with content management. Indeed, web professionals often use portal websites to tackle their big content problems that have loomed unsolved.

Let’s look at a few reasons why portal websites are such an attractive content solution. While some of the benefits I discuss below are practical benefits, others are perceived benefits that end up creating a whole new set of problems. (We’ll get to these problems in a little bit.)

1. We want to clearly target our primary audiences.

Often, a big complaint by marketing and admissions folks is that their website contains too much irrelevant content that doesn’t speak to their primary audience: prospective students. If your website is primarily a marketing tool, then including content for internal audiences hinders communication and confuses external audiences. Portal websites help address this problem.

2. We want to improve web usability and findability.

A commmon problem I hear in higher ed is, "Our website has too much content — people can’t find anything, and everything is out of date." To solve this problem, web professionals aim to reduce the amount of content on their public website, thus improving content usability and findability. (Indeed, I’m a huge fan of cutting content.) Portal websites act as a repository for content clutter. Out of sight, out of mind.

3. We want to reduce the demand on content maintenance.

A huge perceived benefit of using a portal website is reducing the demand on content maintenance: Less content means less maintenance. General marketing content is easier to maintain than detailed internal academic content and student services content. (Of course, as we’ll see, using a portal website doesn’t remove content from your website; it just relocates it.)

4. We want the right people to own the right content.

Content is political, we all know. Competing content priorities and messages hinder communication and content quality. A portal website allows marketing and communications professionals to manage the public-facing content and academic and student services professionals to manage the internal content. This division of content can clarify content governance and reduce political turmoil, but that’s not the whole story.

Why Portal Websites Fail

Those are some good reasons to love portal websites. So, what’s the problem? Well, while a portal website may address these content problems, it doesn’t actually solve them. In fact, it causes more and different content problems.

Let’s flip the page and look at some of the ways portal websites fail.

1. There is a fine line between internal and external content.

Conceptually, dividing content between prospective students and current students (or other external and internal audiences) seems like a clear task. It’s just a matter of separating marketing and admissions content from academic and student services content, right?

The reality is that the lines are not clearly drawn. Admissions content can’t stand alone — it relies on academic content to describe programs and degrees, on student life content to help tell your institution’s story and on student services content to help describe resources and advising options. The reality is that no content stands alone — your website is indeed a web of information, relating relevant information to help audiences find, discover and use valuable content.

By creating an artificial divide, you hinder your audience’s ability to learn and discover your institution. Segmenting content for external audiences may improve usability and simplify communication, but it also hinders findability and limits content value.

2. Segmenting content fosters redundancy and hinders findability.

When you segment content without providing easy access to related content, you force the creation of duplicate content to fill information gaps. For example, essential internal content like academic program descriptions and career services information is needed to support admissions content and must be re-created on the public website.

This causes several findability and maintenance problems:

  • Duplicate content can appear in search engine results and cause confusion for users regarding what content is the right source. What content is most accurate and relevant?
  • Duplicate content can also negatively impact search engine optimization (SEO) if it’s crawled by Google and other search engines. These pages (your pages) then compete with each other for search engine result rankings as search engines try to determine which content is most relevant.
  • Duplicate content additionally becomes a risk for misinformation if one page is updated and the other is not. This is a common occurrence on websites and negates the value of using a portal to "simplify content governance." It’s easy for duplicate content to become out-of-sync and outdated.

3. You risk breaking the web user experience.

Consistent web content, design and functionality ensures a reliable user experience, which is necessary for people to navigate and find information effectively. Consistency enables predictability — and predictability is the key to usability.

A consistent user experience is also necessary for clear communication and building trust with your audience. All content on your website should reinforce your communication goals. If content uses an inconsistent voice and tone and reflects inconsistent messaging, then your communication goals are compromised. Users will become confused about who you are and what you do.

Result: doubt and mistrust. (When users feel doubtful and lack trust, this compromises the goal of using a portal to ensure clear communication.)

4. You still have “too much content.”

As mentioned, one of the big perceived benefits of using a portal website is that you can keep a clean, lean, clutter-free public website.

The problem is, the clutter hasn’t been archived or deleted; it’s simply been moved. It’s like cleaning your office and stuffing everything in the closet. Your desk may look clean and user-friendly — until you need that stapler that was packed away somewhere, and now you can’t find it.

When it comes to content governance and maintenance, a portal website actually makes your job harder. If the marketing and communications team is governing your public website, who is governing the portal website? Who is ensuring that your portal website, as well as your public website, adheres to your content standards? Often, the answers are no one, and you end up with a portal website that resembles your office closet: ignored or unusable.

The challenge of "too much content" can’t be solved by stuffing clutter in the closet. Content needs to be managed regardless of where you put it.

When a Portal Website Makes Sense

Despite these big content problems, portal websites do have a place. A portal website is not a silver bullet for solving your content problems, but with careful planning, it may be an appropriate option.

While there is a lot of opportunity for internal content to be made relevant for external audiences, there are examples that are irrelevant. If content does not provide value to external audiences, it may be appropriate for a portal website.

To guide your decision-making, here are a few characteristics of internal content:

  • Does not inform or delight external audiences
  • May confuse or mislead external audiences
  • Has copyrights that prohibit access to external audiences

With these characteristics in mind, here are some examples of content that may be appropriate for a portal website:

  • Class registration information
  • Academic advising resources
  • Academic policies
  • Career services resources
  • Technology support and how-to guides
  • Orientation information
  • Event planning
  • HR policies and procedures
  • Student records
  • Alumni resources
  • Faculty policies and resources
  • Library services
  • Copyrighted content

As you can see, there are many examples of internal content to plan for. However, when determining whether this content is appropriate for a portal website, consider the needs of external audiences as well as internal audiences. For example, career services resources and orientation information could be interesting for prospective students.

Plan for One Web Presence, Not Multiple Websites

It’s easy and tempting to rely on technology to fix our content problems. It’s harder to develop a practical and sustainable content strategy to provide solutions. When it comes to portal websites, we need to question their value to succeed and do what’s best for our web users and our institutional needs.

Segmenting content by audience type introduces a slew of content problems most organizations are not prepared for. While it’s important to prioritize and plan for your target audiences, it’s a risky business limiting content and user options. Doing so limits your audiences’ ability to learn and discover and your content’s potential to inform and delight.

Likewise, segmenting content does not simplify content governance. Rather, segmented content requires a more elaborate content plan to ensure that the public website and portal website are in sync and up-to-date.

Think holistically. Rather than plan for a public website and a portal website, plan for one web presence — one that considers all audiences, content types and governance needs.

While your website may be your greatest marketing tool, it’s also your greatest customer service tool. With careful planning, it can meet both these needs effectively.

Does your institution have a portal website? If so, we’d love to hear about any positive or negative experiences you’ve had.

Photo by Wikipedia / fair use.

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »


  1. Erik Hagen says:

    Great post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently as we plan to finally move to a CMS. Currently, we have a mega menu of 100+ links as a global navigation, and the site is structured largely according to the org chart. Our portal is useless for managing content, but I think portals are more suited for transactional things – course registration, paying bills, transcripts, etc.

    I’m still very much leaning towards the idea of making the (much simplified) global nav tailored for prospective students, and relying on audience links/landing pages for more internal info. But you’re absolutely right that the lines are not clearly drawn.

    “While it’s important to prioritize and plan for your target audiences, it’s a risky business limiting content and user options. Doing so limits your audiences’ ability to learn and discover and your content’s potential to inform and delight.” I agree, but the other extreme, what we currently have, is overwhelming and projects a sense of complexity. There must be something in the middle of the spectrum. And it could be said Apple’s approach to intentionally limiting options for the purposes of increasing usability makes sense in some cases.

    Maybe we just need Siri for our websites.

    • Hi Erik, thanks for chiming in! That’s a great point. When it comes to enhancing content and user options, I agree that a “mega nav” is not a solution. Navigation menus must prioritize and be selective to support usability and findability.

      When I talk about the risks of limiting user options and wayfinding I highlight the need to prioritize. The purpose of a navigation menu is to guide people to the information they seek as quickly and easily as possible. As you suggest, this does not mean including direct links to every topic. There is a tipping point when too many options hinders usability. (As I mention in this post, I’m a huge fan of cutting content clutter.)

      But to my point regarding portal websites, limiting navigation menu options doesn’t mean you have to remove page content as well. After all, your navigation menu is not a sitemap (well, hopefully!). If page content is useful, usable, and on-brand for your audiences, than it’s appropriate to keep it.

      Good luck with your navigation menu update. I’d love to hear how it turns out. If you find a Siri option, let me know!


  2. Curious what you think about serving on-campus audiences via “gateways” rather than portals. On our site, gateways serve three main purposes for current students and faculty/staff. First, they are the access point for email, Moodle and other tools requiring a login. Second, they are a place to deliver news, announcements and event calendars tailored to those audiences. Finally, they offer various forms of sitemaps to help them find pertinent resources.

    We have encouraged these audiences to use their respective gateways as their homepage, with good success. But the biggest challenge remains creating a truly useful navigational framework for on-campus users that doesn’t a) lead them directly to pages aimed at prospectives, such as our main Academics page; b) require them to know up front which office handles the service/resource they need; and c) doesn’t provide too many details.

    To address item a), we’re considering changing the global navigation options on the gateways so that every audience will have a set of primarypages tailored to their needs, with the underlying pages primarily providing navigational aids. For example, instead of an Academics tab leading current students to our main Academics page, their gateway would have an Academic Resources tab with links to course information, registration, advising, and other items current students need. However, since all other sections of our site (including the Registrar etc) would have global nav options tailored to prospective students, it might cause a different set of usability issues since the primary navigation options will be different.

    What we here from a lot of users is that they have to call someone to find what they need. I’m starting to think this may actually not be such a bad thing — especially at a small school, person-to-person interaction is supposed to be what we’re all about, so maybe we expect too much from the website in the first place.

    Thoughts? Good examples from other schools?

    Thanks for the great post,

    • Hi Jeff: Thanks for your comments and the kind words!

      Generally, I’m a big fan of audience “gateway” pages. Unlike portals, they don’t remove valuable content from your website, but make it easier for various audiences to find content that directly relates to them. Audience “gateway” pages (for current students, faculty and staff, alumni, etc.) work well as supplemental navigation, not primary navigation, as you have them on cornellcollege.edu.

      You pose a great question regarding how to help internal users navigate your website full of content geared toward prospective students. This isn’t an easy question to answer because it requires having insight into your communication goals and various users’ needs. Information architecture addresses these needs and guides how to best prioritize and organize information.

      With that said, I would question whether content (such as your examples of Academic pages) is structured appropriately and whether audiences are adequately defined. You can’t treat prospective students and current students as the same audience. There is always a primary audience.

      I understand your thinking about changing the global navigation for audience “gateway” pages, but I would not recommend that. Like you say, that would cause new and different usability problems. Primary navigation should remain consistent sitewide. As I mention in this post, consistency enables predictability — and predictability is the key to usability.

      I like your last comment. While you don’t want confused users, the feedback you get from them over the phone is invaluable. If you don’t already, I would suggest recording this feedback in the form of actual FAQs. You can then plan for improving your website by better accommodating user needs. And, to your point, some personal offline communication may be appropriate for your users and your small school culture. I love that you think about that.

      I’m going to tackle the topic of navigation schemes in higher ed in an upcoming post — and I will include examples. Thank you for providing inspiration regarding “gateway” pages.


  3. Wonderful topic! We struggled with some lust for a portal or additional website geared toward prospective students when recently revamping our admissions content – but your note about “redundancy and hinders findability” was the nail in the coffin. The University of Texas has an external site geared just toward prospectives (http://bealonghorn.utexas.edu/) that helps funnel them in ways the regular university site can’t (but I am not 100% sold on the content or organization in be a longhorn). It isn’t a portal, but it is separate from the main site. Rick, I’m curious to hear your opinion on that model?

  4. Love this article. It answered many questions we were having about choosing or avoiding a portal site. We’ve decided that we hadn’t defined our goals well enough to opt for a portal site, and once the goals were defined a portal site wasn’t really suited for our intended project. But it works beautifully for another project we never considered using it for in the past, it’s taking more of a org chart role for our parent company. Thanks!

What do you think?