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.