09 June 2009

There once was a WebRing that escaped a giant.

I could fill pages with tales of sites that have been acquired and subsequently destroyed. Perhaps "destroyed" isn't the word -- sometimes web purchases are mainly done not for actual sites but for technology and people. From a web user's perspective (and that is the perspective I generally write from on this blog), though, services like Google's Dodgeball and AOL's XDrive have indeed been destroyed. They're no longer available to be used and enjoyed. It's almost as if they never existed at all in this crazy transient world we call the Internet, though Dodgeball fans should check out foursquare.

WebRing is an example of a rare happy story that can emerge when an acquisition goes wrong. A webring is basically a collection of related sites: you can think of it as a mini-directory that can be surfed not only at a centralized location but also at each site in the webring via a navigation bar. Years ago when I was starting out online webrings were pretty huge. They're much more obscure now, but just as useful -- I don't know of any other easier way to surf around the Web than to click on the "Next" link of a WebRing widget and it usually leads you to more relevant pages because webrings are human-edited. You can tell how big webrings once were by the fact that WebRing, the leading webring provider, was acquired by Yahoo! in 1999 as part of its purchase of GeoCities. By 2001, Yahoo! had lost interest in the site as they are wont to do. Normally, this would have pretty bad...disastrously bad you might say...as it is how acquired sites tend to meet their end. Rather than being catastrophic, however, Yahoo!'s abandonment of WebRing actually led to something good: an independent site run by one of the original site workers. Now Yahoo! doesn't own any part of WebRing -- it's a completely independent, privately owned site. I tend to think of it as a beacon of hope for all those who have had to watch their site fade away after being acquired. Sometimes, albeit rarely, there is life after a bad acquisition!

In addition to its core webring service, WebRing now also offers free webspace and free blog hosting. It is currently actively recruiting GeoCities users to move their pages there in light of Yahoo!'s recent decision to shutter GeoCities. You know, it might not be such a bad idea for someone to create a startup that just attempts to provide alternative services to sites that the giants kill. As WebRing's story illustrates, just because a giant loses interest in a site doesn't mean it doesn't have any life left.

01 June 2009

Did Microsoft really need to rebrand its search engine again?

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Microsoft is a search company, and a serious one at that! What the company from Redmond has shown repeatedly over the last couple of years is that it is committed to search and it is willing to put all the effort required to make a dent in Google's throne. Microsoft's latest move has been to rebrand its oft-rebranded search engine once again. What was Live Search yesterday is Bing today. While Bing is more than just a name change, I haven't decided yet if Live Search's flaws have even by addressed by Microsoft in this latest iteration of its search engine. My big beef with Live Search has long been that it doesn't index enough of the Web in comparison to Google and its top listings are not necessarily relevant. Google doesn't necessarily return the BEST results for any given query on the first page of search results -- I would say it frequently doesn't -- but the main key to its success has, in my view, been its penchant for delivering relevant results for most every query. Part of the reason Google stays so relevant is because it indexes so much of the Web. It can handle the long tail keywords searchers throw at it better than any other engine. I don't think Bing can selectively index the Web and compete...it needs to be able to go everywhere the Googlebot does.

While I wish Microsoft well in its web endeavors, I can't say too I was too excited when I heard about the Bing rebranding. I actually feel like Live Search was an excellent name, and I was quite fond of the Windows Live brand as well -- they both sound professional, contemporary, and fit well with Microsoft's image. Bing, on the other hand, doesn't sound like a Microsoft product at all...it could be that's one of the reasons they picked it. It sounds lighthearted and fun, but to me it would seem to fit a game site better than a search engine. That said, you could argue that Yahoo and Google have silly names as well. Perhaps Microsoft feels that this is no coincidence and has embraced silliness in an attempt to compete. I think the name might just grow on me, though -- I love that the Live Search Club has been rebranded Club Bing and been given the domain name "clubbing.com"! That made me laugh...maybe Microsoft really can do this whole lighthearted thing after all.

I'm honestly going to give Bing a good try. Now that Microsoft has taken this leap, I hope it, too, gives Bing a good try. At some point, the rebranding needs to stop so a lasting brand can be established itself. Personally, I probably would've kept Live Search and just worked on making it a better search engine, but I see no reason why Bing can't be a success.

31 May 2009

In2TV is a shadow of its former self.

I've long thought In2TV was one of AOL's most promising projects. If you've never heard of the site, you're not alone, but it is (was?) a site you could visit to watch classic television programs such as "My Favorite Martian" and "Scooby Doo, Where Are You!" Sounds like Hulu, right? Well, it was indeed like Hulu, except it had different content due to AOL's agreement with Warner Brothers. It was Hulu before Hulu was Hulu, and when it launched it was promoted by a television advertising campaign. That's actually how I found out about the site! Anyway, I've long thought In2TV was a nice complement to Hulu; while Hulu had fewer technical issues and was easier to nevigate, In2TV had content that Hulu didn't. Unfortunately, that just isn't true anymore.

Current visitors to In2TV will find a very plain list of viewable classic shows there. The problem is these are shows you can find on Hulu, Fancast, and other sites online. The unique stuff just isn't there anymore. AOL is still a force in the online video business, but it has increasingly become an aggregator, a site where people can go to find videos that can also be found elsewhere. The (essential) demise of In2TV may have been caused by the expiry of AOL's licensing agreements, but the redundant nature of the site seems to fit well with AOL's overall aggregation strategy. There's no particular reason to go through AOL for your video content, though, unless you're already used to using AOL. The old In2TV had unique content that could actually draw new people in...I don't think the new version has anything to draw people in with. Ultimately, In2TV seems like it will be remembered as a "What if?" site. It could have been where Hulu is today: near the top of the online video world. Why didn't it make it? Maybe it's the Internet's fault...not enough surfers used the darn site. The blogosphere didn't seem to cover the site like they should have; certainly Hulu got far more attention. In2TV was excellent in terms of content while it lasted, though; I really wish many of the old In2TV shows were still available somewhere online. Some of them aren't even available on DVD ("Head of the Class" is one example)!

This hasn't been a very good year for AOL. They've basically killed the three sites of theirs I happened to use the most: XDrive, In2TV, and P&G Classic Soaps. If we accept the giants as equal solely for purposes of this analogy, that would be like Google killing Google Search, Blogger, and Gmail. OUCH! Luckily, my favorite Google sites are more popular than my favorite AOL sites were so hopefully they'll stick around for a while. I may not have any sites left to use before long if the giants keep killing their sites like this, though.

Yahoo 360's long goodbye is finally over.

Yahoo 360 has had a strange history. To this day, many otherwise well-informed web surfers have never even heard of the site which was Yahoo's free blogging platform and early foray into social networking. It never became a notable competitor to Blogger or Wordpress or mySpace or Facebook when pageviews alone are considered. However, it attracted a loyal group of users, including many avid bloggers, who tended to think that 360 was a pretty amazing service. Yahoo didn't quite agree and in fact has been plotting the service's demise for the past couple of years -- someone even had the bright idea that all 360 blogs should be merged into Mash (a more "pure" social networking site) in 2008, but ultimately Mash died before 360 did. Just recently, Yahoo announced when exactly 360 would finally pass away: July 13th, 2009 is the date it will finally leave the Internet forever according to the official blog. I doubt anyone is really surprised that Yahoo is killing the service after the Mash fiasco, but many 360 fanatics still held out hope the service could be saved. Those 360ers always been a rather vocal and opinionated bunch of folks; if you don't believe me, just check out the thousands and thousands of comments on the older posts of the official blog. They have the right to be disgruntled considering that Yahoo is taking away a service they loved and replacing it with another service that is only a partial substitute.

While Mash didn't prove to be the successor to 360, Yahoo is now hoping many of its 360 users will move to its revised Yahoo Profiles service, which does allow blogging in much the same sense that mySpace allows blogging. Based on the 360 blogs I've visited over the years, I tend to think many did use 360 as a social networking tool so it is possible Yahoo will hold on to a good chunk of their more social 360 bloggers. Still, though, I think it's a mistake to to consider blogging synonymous with social networking or a subset of social networking. Google would be insane to try to merge Blogger with Orkut even though more social-type features have been added to Blogger of late; posts about international politics, the insurance industry, and Picasso's paintings just don't belong next to your vital stats and relationship status and I doubt that will ever change. While there are a few decent blogs on mySpace that I've come across, they tend to have a journal type feel to them...they're often deeply personal, and just the sort of thing your friends on a social network would want to read because they care about you personally. You probably wouldn't click over to Doug Dingleberry's mySpace profile to read his blog about the history and culture of southern Germany; you just might click there to read about what's happening in Doug's life, though. Obviously, the line between blogging sites and social networking sites is to a large extent cultural, but it is real for many. I predict that those who had the blogger mentality and used 360 just aren't going to like the social networking feel of Profiles.

What I find myself wondering is why a company like Yahoo ultimately couldn't have separate blogging and social networking platforms. I think their reasoning is partly philosophical -- there seems to be a great drive to consolidate at Yahoo and bring diverse services together under one umbrella: "One profile to rule them all" seems to be the motto. You could argue that that might indeed be rather convenient. Beyond that, I think Yahoo's actions betray the position the company increasingly occupies: they are trying to keep up with an Internet that is changing without their influence. They were late to both the blogging and social networking moves and in 2009 they're still trying to get a foothold in those sectors. When the next big trend hits, Yahoo will probably have to revamp Profiles again and start another site or three to try to get a piece of that new sector. Yahoo could be a highly successful copycat if that's all they want to be, but I think they'll need to stand by their projects more and stop dreaming their perfect copy of another's idea is going to be the next big thing. 360, like some other Yahoo sites, didn't really die of natural causes...it was choked to death by management that just didn't believe in it and thought it a failure.

30 May 2009

Don't let your points expire at the Live Search Club.

I feel a certain twinge of pain after I view my stats page at the Live Search Club, Microsoft's free gaming-with-rewards site. It's not because I'm not proud of my exploits in the various word and other casual games at the Club -- I actually am -- but rather because at the end of my stats page there's a listing that shouldn't be there: Expired Tickets. Since tickets are the basic currency of the site, capable of being exchanged for such items as games, X-Boxes, and Zunes if you have them in sufficient quantities, it goes to figure that expired tickets are like money you can't use anymore. They totally suck, and I've got them. Oops.

A quick glance at the Live Search Club Terms & Conditions reveals what happened to my lovely tickets. Evidently, if you're not active on the site for six months (180 days to be exact), your preexisting points expire. Evidently, I wasn't active there for six months despite my big plans of winning an X-Box from the site. To be honest, that activity requirement is pretty reasonable as far as activity requirements go...I can't believe I went such a long time without playing the games there. It won't happen again, that's for sure, and I hope it won't ever happen to you. If you think you want to quit the site for a while, why not redeem your points for SOMETHING, anything, so they don't get the chance to expire? If I had done that I might at least have had some playing cards or a pen or something instead of all this sorrow and regret. Don't be me, people...use your tickets!

I believe the site is still doing well. There are some new (well, new to me at least...granted, I am expired ticket guy) games that I've been checking out lately...they're not all word games, either. "Discover the World", for instance, is a straight-up geography quiz and a lot of fun, while "Hidden Expedition: Titanic" is a find-the-image type of game that's strangely addicting. Given that Microsoft is going to be rebranding their search once again, I admit I do wonder a bit about the future of the site...but I'm hoping it will stay. It has plenty of good games and is one of the best ways to win (or, really, earn) electronics and other good prizes online -- in a world full of scams, the Live Search Club is a beacon of hope for Internet prize seekers.

24 April 2009

The new Yahoo is the same as the old Yahoo.

With a new CEO at the helm, there has been some understandable excitement reverberating throughout the Internet community regarding the future of Yahoo. Finally, some meaningful break with the past had occurred at the tottering giant. However, Yahoo's recent decision to close GeoCities, the iconic free webspace provider, illustrates how difficult it will be for that tottering giant to ever truly revive. It's such a classic Yahoo move when you think about it. GeoCities was one of those Yahoo acquisitions that really went nowhere -- like Broadcast.com and Webring, GeoCities gradually fell from prominence after it was acquired. Yahoo's strategy has long been to close or ignore sites that aren't performing; they never seem to try to FIX their problems because they'd rather just get rid of them and start over from scratch no matter how much that costs them. This move is also sadly illustrative of Yahoo's supreme contempt for their users. Given that this is a company that once courted controversy by attempting to claim ownership over GeoCities' users content, no one should be surprised that Yahoo thinks little of deleting countless personal homepages that may have been hosted on their servers for many years. Still, Yahoo is unique among the giants in its truly cavalier approach to users' data: from closing Yahoo Photos to attempting to morph their blogging platform Yahoo 360 into a social network, Yahoo's history makes it very clear that it doesn't take its users' most precious content seriously. I wouldn't be surprised if they just decided to close Yahoo Mail for the hell of it one day given the corporate culture that seems to prevail there. Finally, this closure illustrates Yahoo's lack of respect for its own history; GeoCities was one of the first prominent free webspace providers and it allowed millions of people to create webpages for the first time. Although its best days may have occurred prior to the Yahoo! acquisition, Yahoo is the current owner of that legacy. GeoCities could have been closed for new registrations without any plans to shutter the service for existing users, allowing it to stand as a monument to an Internet gone by, but no...Yahoo evidently is worried about saving disk space and bandwidth in addition to the costs of maintaining the service.

There's one thing Yahoo did do right here, though, and that is inform its users well in advance of the closing. The exact date hasn't even been announced, but the lights will go out sometime later this year, with more details coming in the summer. Although Yahoo is emphasizing the fact that users don't need to do anything right now, I highly recommend that all GeoCities users find a new host for their sites and start redirecting their visitors to their new sites as soon as it is convenient in order to ensure a comfortable transition. Remember, search engines will need to find your new site, your old visitors will need to update their bookmarks, and other webmasters will need to update their links to your site -- it's a good idea to give yourself as much time as possible. There are plenty of other free web hosts around which frankly give you a lot more freedom than GeoCities ever did, but unfortunately many of these are fly by night operations. Google Sites gives you less freedom, but it is backed up by Google. Granted, those are the same guys who killed Google Notebook a while back, but I suspect Google users will still be able to access their notebooks long after GeoCities ceases to exist. Whatever GeoCities users do, I hope they don't move to Yahoo! Web Hosting, a paid hosting service, like Yahoo wants them to do -- come on, people, have some self-respect! Moving to another Yahoo web hosting service after getting screwed over by the company would be like knowingly hiring a guy who is having an affair with your wife to be your marital counsellor.

Personally, it's been a long time since I used GeoCities extensively. I'll always remember the site fondly for hosting some of my earliest attempts at HTML, though, in the pre-acquisition days. GeoCities' greatest legacy may be the generation of web developers who started at GeoCities (perhaps as children) and then went on to do great things outside the service, though GeoCities' closing is going to affect a number of great sites I still visit to this day as well. I don't want to whitewash history: the GeoCities story definitely isn't 100% good. They never sought to allow their users to profit from their content, for instance, and instead put obtrusive ads and watermarks all over their users' creations. While other free web hosts changed with the times and accepted that at least revenue sharing should be allowed, GeoCities resolutely stuck to the idea that providing free hosting was sufficient. I definitely think there was a reaction to this attitude; many great webmasters moved on to other free hosts and blogging platforms, and perhaps even more moved to paid hosting as that became gradually more affordable. To the end, though, GeoCities remained an outlet for free expression and continued to allow ordinary people to dabble with web creation for free. We're poorer without it. The extent to which Yahoo is poorer without it I'm unsure of, but I would think any remaining GeoCities users ought to be less inclined to use Yahoo services in the future.

23 January 2009

The Internet still needs Yahoo! Search.

Searchers are sadly creatures of habit. When we find a search engine that delivers results we're happy with, we tend to stick with it. Although we might be open to changing search engines if something better comes along, most of us rely on one search engine. Google once was that better thing that came along and changed the world of search forever; it's still, in my view, the best search engine around. I rather think that too many people agree with me at the moment, for it can become dangerous for choice when a sizable majority of people come to prefer the same thing. With a new Yahoo! CEO at the helm, rumors that Yahoo! and Microsoft will strike a search deal are swirling once again. Such a deal might or might not make sense from a business point of view, but any potential tieup between these two Internet giants remains as bad for the consumer as ever, even though John Q. Consumer may not realize it yet.

I've always been one to dabble with different search engines, but ingrained habits die hard. Although I used to run the odd search with Hotbot and other search engines, Altavista was my bread and butter search engine for a long while; it was the site I searched with first almost every time. When I discovered Google, it quickly usurped Altavista's role in my search life. So, even though I may preach a lot about how having multiple search engines is very important, I myself use one search engine disproportionately more than I use any other. I want to change, though. Truthfully, the more I use Yahoo! Search the more I recognize that it is a necessary counterweight to Google. Trusting in Google's search results means accepting that Google's ranking system will always list the sites you want to see. For the most part, I am satisfied with Google's search results, but I still wonder, "What else is out there? What am I not seeing?" I don't want to totally depend on Google to let me know what is on the Web. When I search with Yahoo!, I often come across different sites that I don't see on Google for the same query even several pages into the search results. Sometimes these different sites are worth viewing, sometimes they're not, but they're certainly not so heinously inferior that I don't want to use Yahoo! anymore. Truth be told, I've thought that Yahoo! has grown into quite a decent search engine for a while now, unlike Microsoft's offering Live Search. Yahoo! does seem to have a preference for older sites, and it can't be compared to Google when it comes to indexing the Web (for instance, it thinks I last posted on this blog last spring!), but it's still the second best of the offerings we have right now. Even though I don't think too highly of Live Search's results, I'm glad that Microsoft is still in the search game, too -- the engine can always be improved, and I know Microsoft very much wants to become a serious search player. However, if Microsoft and Yahoo! end up partnering and canning Yahoo! Search in favor of Live Search, the Internet searcher is the big loser here. Not only would we lose a good search engine, but the new second best search engines would be even further behind Google in terms of quality.

Webmasters in particular should want to see multiple search engines continue to coexist. I normally don't get a lot of traffic from Yahoo!, but it really likes one of my recent projects for some reason and it has been sending me more traffic to that project than Google has so far. It's great for webmasters to know that they are not doomed to total obscurity just because one search engine doesn't like them any longer. If Yahoo! and the other search engines soldier on and hopefully grow more in popularity, neither webmaster nor searcher will have to depend on one company's ability to search, index, and rank the Web. We still need Yahoo! Search as much as ever.

21 January 2009

Google Video is a service in transition.

Google Video recently announced that it will soon no longer accept new uploads. In effect, the service is transitioning from a hybrid video hosting platform/video search engine into a video search engine only though it will still host all its preexisting video content. I must admit I'm not as upset at this change as I am at some of Google's other recent moves, like the ending of development of Google Notebook, but that's probably because I've used Google Video primarily as a search engine for a long time now. (Of course, it also helps ease the pain to know that Google is still operating the Web's most popular user-generated video site: YouTube!) I've found that it's generally faster to search for videos on GV as opposed to searching individual video sites and it's also more effective because GV knows about more video sites than I do. I wouldn't say that Google Video is quite on par with Google's web search service in terms of delivering quality, relevant results for every search, but it's not too bad and I'm glad that the Google team plan to continue to work at tweaking it. A common complaint seems to be that YouTube dominates the search results, which is true, but I've personally found a lot of obscure, often country specific video sites through Google Video as well. Frankly, YouTube is the busiest online video host so it may well always dominate video search engine results.

Google Video did have at least one definite advantage over YouTube: it allowed all of its users to upload long videos whilst YouTube now restricts virtually all of its users to uploading videos with lengths of ten minutes or less. Formerly at least YouTube directors could upload longer videos -- actually, existing YouTube directors still can, but new directors no longer gain this ability. In part because of YouTube's restrictions, much of Google Video's popularity has stemmed from its welcoming stance towards long videos. In particular, it became a popular online destination for documentary watchers. Classic documentaries uploaded with the permission of their producers will still make Google Video a worthy video site in its own right for a long time to come, but it's sad that there'll be no new documentaries added in the future and that the diehard doc fans will have to find a new place online to call home. In the long run, though, I think Google Video will reach a larger audience as a search engine than it ever could just as a video content site in competition with YouTube. I don't agree with those who think YouTube will eventually usurp GV's search role, too -- it just makes more sense to search for video content on Google Video than it does to search on something called "YouTube."

18 January 2009

In the face of a recession, Google shrugged.

I decided to focus this blog on the services offered by the five major Web players because at the time I started this blog I believed that they were coming up with some of the most innovative online projects and also because I thought a project backed by one of the giants would have a better possibility of surviving long-term. I have to admit now that I was totally wrong. None of the giants -- with the possible exception of Amazon -- really seem to stand by their projects. None of them -- with the possible exception of Amazon -- take care in what projects they choose to tackle and release to the public. They seem to release and kill projects at a whim. It might not be the bandwidth bills or server costs that kill their projects as so often happens with independent startups, but the projects die pitiful and sudden deaths nonetheless. I've long been planning on opening a sister site to this blog that just covers independent web projects, and the latest spate of project killings by Google has made me more determined than ever to do this. Frankly, the giants just can't be trusted.

Google has in the past done quite a good job at keeping its projects going. Yes, Google Answers was unceremoniously killed, and several projects have been ignored after their release or acquisition. The company has been reluctant to use the axe, though, and I thought that showed a commendable commitment to both its users and its projects. With the economy tanking, things have changed. Google's 3D community Lively was killed before most people even knew it existed. The long-ignored projects Jaiku, Dodgeball, and Google Catalogs were more recently canned. In my view, Google's recent decision to cease development and disallow signups for Google Notebook was the worst move at all. This was a useful service and seemingly a reasonably popular one; it seems to be the killed service that will be most missed judging from the online reaction to Google's recent moves. Granted, Google hasn't started hated its users -- it is throwing them a bone where it can, letting current Google Notebook users continue using the service and opensourcing Jaiku so that anyone will soon be able to start their own microblogging service on their own servers. Still, I have a hard time believing that these types of cuts were really necessary on the part of a huge company like Google unless they are in worse financial shape than is commonly believed. I have to wonder what service might next be axed for arbitrary reasons...perhaps it will be Blogger, the Google service I count on the most apart from search? Is any Google service really safe?

What is most unforgiveable about all this is that Google did not really explore their options with these canned projects. They didn't put ads on Google notebooks. They killed Lively before it had time to build enough of a userbase to get corporations and other advertisers interested. They didn't let Jaiku become a serious Twitter competitor when Twitter was experiencing serious growing pains because they never allowed open signups. It's almost as if the company didn't want these services to be successful -- or, more likely, they just couldn't be arsed to explore all these potentialities. The most annoying thing about web giants is their incredible inefficiency. On one hand, they have the talent and ingenuity to produce these often very interesting projects. On the other, they seemingly don't have the manpower or the will to build many of these projects up into something profitable and successful. They do have people willing to greenlight projects only to then kill them off suddenly, though.

Perhaps we'll be able to look back on this one day and say, "Well, it was just the recession. Google's stock sure took a beating back in '08 -- they had to streamline. The way they acted then didn't really reflect the kind of company they really are." I'm not confident that it is just the recession, though -- I think the malaise and inefficiency that has long afflicted Yahoo!, AOL, and Microsoft's web division may also have infected Google. Users beware: the service you love today may well be axed tomorrow.