Yahoo! Sees Del.icio.us Future

One of the more interesting aspects of watching the action in the technology field involves examining the moves that various companies make and considering how they fit into that company’s strategy. It is particularly enjoyable when you can step back and see what a company’s vision of the future must be like, based on what it has done recently. Yahoo!’s purchase of Del.icio.us is a case in point.

The deal closed early in December 2005, and financial terms were not disclosed. Del.icio.us founder Joshua Schachter wrote in his blog about his company’s acquisition by Yahoo! with quite a bit of excitement (using the word “excited” twice in the first paragraph, in fact). This is only to be expected, of course. To understand the significance of the purchase, though, you need to understand what Del.icio.us is, what it does, and how it serves its users.

Del.icio.us is a New York-based startup that was founded as a company in 2005. It didn’t exist for very long before that. Joshua Schacter started it in 2003, according to the site, “in order to help him and his friends save and share web pages.” In other words, del.icio.us is a collection of bookmarks. On a simple level, a user can keep links to all of their favorite websites in such a way that they can be accessed from any computer on the web. If you do a lot of work, especially research, on a variety of different computers, this is very handy; it’s nice to be able to take your bookmarks anywhere and everywhere.

On a deeper level, though, del.icio.us is a lot more than a means of making one person’s bookmarks portable for just him or her. The site also allows you to share your bookmarks with friends, family, and colleagues. You can even share your bookmarks with strangers — people you don’t know within the del.icio.us community, or people outside the community who are browsing the site. The site suggests that this is a great way to discover new things, because “Everything on del.icio.us is someone’s favorite — they’ve already done the work of finding it.” So anybody browsing the del.icio.us site is benefiting not from the work of automated spiders and indexing programs, but from thousands of human minds at work (and at play). As you would expect, it puts a new slant on search.

{mospagebreak title=Del.icio.usly Interactive}

The del.icio.us home page features a sight that should be familiar to anyone who has been on the Internet for more than thirty seconds — a search box. When you type a term into the box and hit “search,” you receive a set of search results. So far, so good — but there’s an important difference with these results. Each web page that appears in the list of results links to its respective site, as you would expect — but under the title of each web page appears a list of what del.icio.us refers to as “tags” (more on tags in a minute). Each of these tag words is a link to a list of other URLs that carry the same tag. And, perhaps most indicative of what the site does, next to the list of tags is a number that indicates how many people tagged that URL. You can even click on that number; when you do, you’ll see a list that shows who saved the URL, on what date, and under what set of tags.

Currently, there are no sponsored links on del.icio.us. And the number of URLs that come up for a typical search is much lower that Google delivers. In the case of “juggling,” for example, del.icio.us returns 451 items, while Google serves up more than six million results. So what a user gets is more focused results — and better still, none of the results are there because they paid to be there, or because the website’s owner made sure to give it enough search engine optimization to please the spiders. Any site on that list is there because a human actually visited the site, looked it over, used it, and decided that the site filled a need (his own or someone else’s) and fit a particular category.

As previously mentioned, tags help with this organization process. Tags are one-word descriptors that members of the del.icio.us community assign to their bookmarks. A user can assign as many tags to a bookmark as he or she wants, and is not constrained to assign only particular tags determined by some other authority. The interesting point about tags, of course, is that a lot of people think along the same lines. If you have used the tag word “design” for some sites, and you’re curious about what other members have found that might be similar, you can actually view other members bookmarks relating to that topic by going to del.icio.us/tag/design. This can be a lot faster than asking friends for good sites!

Del.icio.us offers other features to help members keep their bookmarks organized, and to provide information to others about the sites they find. Users can send bookmarks to other users with the “for” tag, which encourages interactivity and collaboration. Users can also subscribe to certain tags, certain users’ bookmarks, or a user/tag combination; when URLs fitting the subscription criteria are tagged, they are delivered to the user’s del.icio.us inbox. Likewise, if there are certain tags you know you do not want to see, you can enter them as “antisocial” in your settings and you will not see them on your home or “for” page; you can also do this with specific users. These may seem like simple features on the surface, but combine them and you suddenly have an immensely useful and powerful community resource — especially when you multiply that by the 300,000 users and more than 10 million URLs that make up the current knowledge base for del.icio.us.

{mospagebreak title=Will Success Spoil Del.icio.us?}

Jeremy Zawodny, an engineer in Yahoo!’s search group, said on a Yahoo! company blog after the acquisition that “Just like we’ve done with Flickr, we plan to give del.icio.us the resources, support, and room it needs to continue growing the service and community.” Joshua Schachter wrote of the acquisition in the del.icio.us company blog that “Together we’ll continue to improve how people discover, remember and share on the Internet, with a big emphasis on the power of community….I look forward to continuing my vision of social and community memory, and taking it to the next level with the del.icio.us community and Yahoo!”

The reaction to the acquisition in the del.icio.us community itself, however, has been wildly mixed. Schachter’s blog post inspired hundreds of comments from users. Some are wildly ecstatic about the move; others are in deep despair. For example, many users are afraid that Yahoo! will alter the service in ways that will make them stop wanting to use it.

Most users fall somewhere in between on their view of the purchase. They are uncertain about the future of del.icio.us as a part of Yahoo! Will Yahoo! throw banners ads up all over their beloved website? Will del.icio.us users be forced to obtain a Yahoo! id in order to keep using the service? Will the comfortable, easy-to-use interface be changed by the search engine giant?

More to the point, some users are concerned, despite the apparent reassurance from Zawodny and Schachter, that innovation will slow down at del.icio.us as the company has to deal with the general corporate bureaucracy at Yahoo! Another concern expressed by some users is that, as more people use del.icio.us and the service becomes more “democratic,” the actual quality of the content will go down. At the very least, it is possible that a flood of less technologically-oriented users to the service will push out current users, thus changing the general nature of the community.

{mospagebreak title=Yahoo! and Web 2.0}

Yahoo! has a good track record with other acquisitions it has made, such as the paid search network Overture and the web mail provider Oddpost. This is also not the first purchase for Yahoo! where community has played a major factor in the acquired company’s value. Earlier in 2005, the search engine purchased Flickr, a photo-sharing site that Schachter referred to as del.icio.us’ “fraternal twin.”

Yahoo! has shown signs, in other words, that it understands the concept of social bookmarking. One person who has used the del.icio.us service for six months believes the purchase will lead to easier searching, a higher probability of finding similar users and relevant websites, and lots of the kinds of features that only Yahoo! Labs can dream up. But the purchase has significant meaning beyond the changes, good or bad, that it will bring to the del.icio.us community.

Both Flickr and del.icio.us represent the kinds of companies that are described as being part of Web 2.0. Despite arising after the dot-com collapse, Web 2.0 companies share something with one of the best known pre-collapse dot-com success stories, namely eBay. As with the auction giant, Web 2.0 companies are supported by their communities; their users are central to their services, and often create, share, and manage content. In addition to Flickr and del.icio.us, Wikipedia can be considered part of Web 2.0, as can blog search provider Technorati.

These kinds of companies, which harness the power of literally hundreds of thousands of minds, may well be the future of the web, and Yahoo! seems ready to gradually remake itself to take advantage of that trend. This could help it pull ahead of Google. On the other hand, the move is not without its risks. Wikipedia, for example, despite the many volunteer editors who scour its pages and the supposed speed with which erroneous information can be corrected in its articles, has recently been the target of serious scandals over inaccurate and blatantly wrong information in its entries.

If search engines begin to take these communities seriously, and use them as a significant part of their algorithms, the whole nature of SEO could be changed. Instead of optimizing to please the spiders, website owners will need to optimize to please the users and convince them that the site is worth bookmarking. Hmm. On second thought, perhaps that isn’t quite so different from what site owners and SEOs are trying to do now after all. It will simply make it more explicit that websites exist to serve their visitors — and sites that do not will find themselves more strongly penalized than before. 

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