Yahoo Building Buzz with Buzz

Despite its lack of success against the giant in the search engine field, Yahoo seems to understand Web 2.0 better than Google. Its newest service, Yahoo Buzz, accepts input and votes from users. Is it merely a clone of Digg, or something more?

On the face of it, Yahoo Buzz seems very much to be a Digg clone in the way it’s supposed to work. It asks users to vote on the news stories they like. Content that gets lots of votes will then be featured on its front page.

In other ways, Buzz is different from Digg. It isn’t based solely on user votes. As Yahoo explains, “A story is ranked based on its Buzz Score. The score is derived from search term popularity, the number of times a story is emailed from Buzz, and the number of votes a story receives.” This is probably a more realistic measure of the popularity of an article than simply totaling votes. With three different metrics, it may suffer less from user attempts to game the system.

Digg and similar sites often suffer from this problem. The news media covering social sites reports regularly on user attempts on Digg to push various stories to the top – or bury them. There’s even supposed to be an informal group of users called the “Bury Brigade” that tries to keep inappropriate or spammy stories from seeing the light of day for very long.

In addition to using more than one metric, Yahoo Buzz uses human editors, not computer programs, to decide when an item has received enough “buzz” to go on its front page. Sure, it can be exciting to make it to the front page of sites such as Digg or Slashdot, but even those social sites don’t see Yahoo’s level of traffic. Yes, it’s only the second-most-popular search engine, but Yahoo’s front page still receives 90 million visitors every month – and that’s from the US alone. Just how fast would Slashdot’s or Digg’s servers melt under that kind of traffic?

To give you an idea of the power and influence to which this translates, let me quote a New York Times article reporting on Yahoo Buzz before it went live. “In a test of the service this year, Yahoo linked from its front page to content from Esquire magazine for just three hours. In that brief period of time, traffic to the Esquire.com site, which already allows users of Digg and Reddit to vote on its stories, doubled for the month.” Look at that again. Traffic doubled for the month – after being linked to Yahoo’s home page for only three hours!

If you check out Yahoo Buzz’s Help, you’ll find out that Yahoo is trying to depend as much as possible on each item’s Buzz Score to determine where each story fits. Editors do monitor Yahoo Buzz to make sure content is categorized correctly and is not inappropriate. Yahoo will remove any content that violates its Terms of Service. Editors also cherry pick, going through the top content on Yahoo Buzz to choose items to appear on Yahoo’s home page.

Yahoo Buzz is different from Yahoo News in at least two ways. First, Yahoo News is chosen entirely by a team of human editors that work in-house for Yahoo, not volunteers. Second, Yahoo Buzz features content from non-Yahoo Web publishers in addition to Yahoo News stories. Presumably, Yahoo News stories have to earn their way onto Yahoo Buzz just like any other story.

Like any self-respecting Web 2.0 site, Yahoo Buzz has its own blog, the Buzz Log.

A visit to Yahoo Buzz’s home page gives you the impression that it’s being updated all the time, as the top square loads pictures of stories that have been “just added.” Categories for stories include Entertainment, Sports, World, Video, Featured on Y!, and under the More drop-down, Business, Health, Images, Lifestyle, Politics, Sci/Tech, Travel, and U.S. News. That should be enough to keep quite a few news junkies reading for a while. Here’s a screen shot:

 

I’ll cover what you can find in various sections in more detail on the next page. Right now I’d like to note that the site takes advantage of some interesting tricks that may have been written in JavaScript, or possibly AJAX. At least at first glance, it’s fun to hover over images and entries and see what happens – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’ll start with the blue square at the top labeled “Just Added.” Images in that square tend to shift and change every minute, which can be a little disconcerting if you were looking for a particular image and it’s not there anymore. Sometimes reloading helps. At least you don’t have to click the image to find out where it goes. Just put your mouse cursor over it, like so:

 

The tooltip tells you the article’s headline, where it came from, and how recently it was added. What happens if you click on the More link in the tooltip?

 

You get taken to the full entry in Yahoo Buzz for the story, sitting at the head of the story’s Yahoo Buzz category (Sci/Tech in this case). From here you can click through to read the article, vote on the story by “buzzing it” up or down, email it to someone, or post it to one of six different social sites: Delicious, Digg, Facebook, Propeller, Reddit and Stumbleupon. Yes, that’s right, Yahoo’s version of a social news site plays well with other social sites – including ones that Yahoo doesn’t own.

As with many other social sites, you can’t vote anonymously. Here’s a screen shot of what happens if you try to vote without registering or being logged into the system:

 

Did I mention that I really like Yahoo’s use of tooltips in Buzz? Anyway, if I’m going to get the word out about this story, I’d better register. I already have a Yahoo sign-in – and in fact, I’m already signed in with it. But apparently I still need to register with Buzz.

Or do I? As it turned out, all I had to do was sign in with my password with my regular screen name, go back to Buzz, find the story again, and I got a new tooltip that let me confirm my vote. I didn’t need to create a separate registration for Buzz. Here’s what it looked like after I voted:

 

Yahoo made it fairly easy to search for this article. I could choose to search in the specific category and/or search by title only for my particular keyword. It’s pretty clear how Yahoo will monetize this new service, by the way: after I did my search, about five text ads came up on the right, all featuring my keyword. This is no surprise; Yahoo’s been in the business of combining search with text ads on the side for a long time. But this particular service combines search, text ads and the dynamic of a vote-based web site in an effective manner.

Anything on Yahoo Buzz seems to start with a base Buzz Score of 100. It can go up or down from there. A recent political story at the top of Yahoo Buzz boasted a Buzz Score of 534. The lowest Buzz Score I could find was a 50, for a story about a Christian blogger claiming that Oprah promotes paganism. For the heck of it, I voted that one down – and was surprised to see Yahoo make a recommendation:

 

No, it doesn’t look as if it’s based on any kind of preference engine beyond showing me the top articles in the same category. That’s okay, but it would be very cool if Yahoo built some kind of system that said “Those who cared enough to vote on this story also cared enough to vote on these” and presented you with appropriate options. Then again, preference engines are really tricky to build and improve, as the competitors in a NetFlix challenge to improve its preference engine are discovering.

If you’re a publisher and you’d like to get exposure on Yahoo Buzz, the good news is you probably can – but it will take time. Yahoo Buzz is still in beta, but you can join their mailing list for updates; they’re promising new tools, APIs, and more very soon. Point your browser here to sign up.

I really like Yahoo Buzz on a lot of levels. Its Buzz Score may be less susceptible to manipulation than the voting systems you find on other social news networks. It could benefit a lot of publishers and advertisers. The user experience is fairly smooth, if potentially a little frustrating ("where did the image for that story I wanted to read go?!"). There is one thing that this kind of site usually has that Yahoo Buzz doesn’t, which I miss: beyond voting, there doesn’t seem to be a way for users to comment on each story, producing a thread. Perhaps Yahoo will add that later; after all, this service is still in beta.

In any case, it’s nice to see that Yahoo isn’t slowing down even with the threat of a hostile takeover bid from Microsoft hovering over its head. It’s a pity that this will probably be too little, too late. I’d rather not think about what Yahoo Buzz will become if and when Microsoft succeeds in its attempt to purchase the search engine.

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