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Excite and Yahoo, the two leading Web-search sites, race to remake themselves into portals

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Excite feels the same way about itself. Its personalization ploy is its biggest step yet in the race to catch up to its first-place rival. Yahoo and Excite have each offered a modest form of personalization for two years. Yahoo calls its service My Yahoo; Excite's is My Excite. Each loads stock quotes, news flashes and various other tidbits, along with the inevitable blinking ads, onto one customizable page. Starting this week, though, Excite has made personalization the centerpiece of its site. It's a gamble, but one grounded in experience. "People who personalize," says Kraus, "return five times more often than people who don't." What's more, these users are intensely loyal. "My Yahoo is getting 6.9 million unique visitors a month, and My Excite is getting 4.4 million," says Jeff Levy, CEO of RelevantKnowledge. "And there's virtually no overlap."

There's more than loyalty at stake, however. The first generation of search engines derived the bulk of their revenues from advertisers chasing their millions of users. But as the Web matures, more and more income will come from online transactions. And what better way to do targeted marketing than to get as personal as possible with as many of your users as will answer your questions? "It's a virtuous cycle," says Kraus. "The more you know about your customer, the more time he's likely to spend on your service and the more you can target that time more effectively for both advertisers and customers."

Will Yahoo follow suit? For now, Yang's path to portalhood goes through something called Yahoo Online, a full-bore online access service launched last month with long-distance giant MCI. Unfortunately, AOL pretty much staked out the $14.95-a-month turf years ago, and you get the feeling Yang knows it. "MCI is a way of getting our users to Yahoo faster," he says, "but it's just one of many." Like more personalization, maybe? If traffic on the new Excite starts soaring, Levy predicts, "you'll see Yahoo follow suit. The Web's rules are being rewritten weekly."

Along with its player roster. Take, for instance, home page of the famously underperforming Microsoft Network. Later this year--if the Feds don't quash his online ambitions first--Bill Gates will launch Microsoft Start, MSN's reincarnation as a portal site. Microsoft's early Web efforts may have been feeble, but that doesn't mean the Gen-X millionaires at Yahoo and Excite won't be looking over their shoulder. "It's early in the game," says Yang. And Bill Gates tends to win in the late rounds.

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