June 26, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

What do internet mega-companies really want nowadays? The same thing as politicians or celebrities: your loyalty. Netscape, AOL, CNET, and Yahoo! are only some of the combatants in a new online turf war, and this time the battle is for your home page. In Web parlance, they all want to be your portal.

The latest buzzword in an industry desperate for profitable new business ideas, “portals” cram all the daily info you could need—local weather, news, sports scores, stock prices, online phone books, maps, E-mail, chat—onto one page and then pray you’ll make it your browser’s default starting point. The catch is that most people don’t know where to start looking for a starting point. The following roundup of major portal players may help: If one of these sites works for you, you’re halfway there (note: Microsoft, as usual, is looming large in the background with a gradual rollout of its portal service, code-named Start). Just don’t forget that to really take in the Web, you eventually have to leave “home.”

GREAT FOR Anyone

Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com) Guess what? This hugely popular site (it hit 95 million page views per day in March) isn’t a Web directory anymore, it’s a “portal.” It’s beefing up its subsites, too: Yahoo! Finance and Sports already get more traffic than any other similar site. Great design, timely updates, and free E-mail make it the one to beat for now. A

GREAT FOR Anyone Who Hates Yahoo!

Excite (http://www.excite.com) As Pepsi is to Coke, Excite is to Yahoo! There’s no reason to switch to or from it, unless you (1) philosophically eschew Yahoo!, (2) prefer Excite’s yellower design, or (3) really need daily horoscopes. Smart arrangements with Intuit (for financial info), TEN (a huge gaming hub), ZDNet (for computer expertise), AT&T, and Disney, ESPN, and ABC sites make this the horse to watch. A

GREAT FOR Impatient Web Surfers

Snap! (http://www.snap.com) If you’re one of those people who believe that searching online takes twice as long as going down to the flippin’ library and looking it up yourself, then CNET’s got a portal for you. Though the interface is dull, dull, dull, Snap! boasts uniquely quick and smart search returns. The big question: Is this enough to lure people away from other portals? NBC thinks so: It just signed up as a joint partner. B

GREAT FOR Businesspeople

Netscape Netcenter (http://www.netscape.com) Poor Netscape. It practically owned the browser market, and then Microsoft happened. Then it dawned on the Netscape folks that more than 70 million people using their browser might also use the home page for more than downloads. Geared toward a techier crowd, Netcenter’s directory offers computing and business categories, plus some community and shopping incentives. But the cluttered, text-heavy design won’t win over any newbies. B-

GREAT FOR Lazy AOL Subscribers

AOL.com (http://www.aol.com) It looks and acts like a Yahoo!—with a search engine and directory—but America Online’s website doesn’t offer any of the freebies (chats, E-mail, sports scores) that make other portals so appealing. No matter: As the default home page for the AOL Web browser, it’s what 12 million-plus subscribers see first. In fact, it’s a little surprising that there isn’t a “Road Out” sign here to keep ’em all back on the farm. C-

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