Netvibes Puts Web Surfers in Control

Most of us who work at desks all day like to have all of our useful tools in one place, both figuratively and literally. From actual desktops full of paper to virtual desktops full of icons to browsers bulging with bookmarks, we like everything where we can get to it easily. Enter Netvibes.

Netvibes offers its own version of an all-in-one-place solution, and if you’re an online business looking for a new way to reach potential customers, you just might want to pay attention. But first, let me give you a little background.

Netvibes was founded in September 2005 by Tariq Krim. The France-based company has been adding new features like there’s no tomorrow, as a glance at its blog would quickly reveal. The company has at least ten million users in more than 150 countries. They’re attracted by the possibility of simplifying much of their web life onto a single home page.

As the company explains, “Netvibes lets individuals assemble all in one place their favorite websites, blogs, email accounts, social networks, search engines, instant messengers, photos, videos, podcasts, widgets, and everything else they enjoy on the web.” Not only is it all in one place, but in true web 2.0 fashion, users can easily share it with their friends. Granted, this isn’t exactly new; web portals have been around forever, and users have been able to customize their views of Yahoo, Google, and other sites for years. So what makes Netvibes different?

You don’t realize it right away because the home page has so much stuff on it (just waiting for your custom touch), but then it hits you: no ads. Not even one. You may see corporate logos, but those are attached to items such as news feed widgets – and it would look a little strange if your news feed from Reuters didn’t have the Reuters logo on it, wouldn’t it?

Is that truly the company’s policy? “We break all the rules,” explains Krim in an interview with Wired. Firms that want to reach Netvibers have to give them something useful – no mere ad hyping the virtues of the company or its products will do. For instance, if eBay wanted to show Netvibers the extent of its auctions, it couldn’t simply put ads next to related items; it would have to build an auction-tracking module, and it just might find that someone else who found a need for such a module had gotten there first.

If you have a blog or podcast, you’ll be interested in the Netvibes Ecosystem. This is where Netvibes is trying to build the most complete directory of feeds it can. Netvibes users can then grab your feed and add it to their own pages. If any Netvibes users come across your site while they’re surfing and want to add your content, Netvibes also has the Netvibes Button, which you can set up on your site to let them subscribe to your feed in one click.

Are you somewhat more ambitious? You can put together your own Universe. Krim describes a Netvibes Universe this way: “Imagine building your own rich media portal that anyone can visit, like your own personal Yahoo or MySpace. Imagine going beyond the blog, and unifying your digital life in on single place with podcasts, videos, feeds, games pictures – but unlike a blog, you don’t have to post to it every day; content gets updated automatically. Imagine launching your own media company in just minutes.”

If you’re a big company like CBS News, it can help you reach a Web savvy audience. Recording artists, publishers, companies offering online services, and even educational and not-for-profit companies have built their own Universes on Netvibes. While the Universes do have the feel of being built off of templates, it’s very clear even from the thumbnails you can view when you browse the directory of Universes that each builder has put their own stamp on their creation.

Of course it wouldn’t really be Web 2.0 if you couldn’t make comments about it. When you browse the list of Universes, you get to see the number of comments each Universe has received, and a click takes you to the comments themselves. So far, very few people have garnered any comments. (I was a little disappointed that Tariq Krim himself did not have a Universe; what, no personal glimpse of the founder?).

Not everyone can use Netvibes Universes just yet; they’re in beta. The intention, according to the Netvibes blog, is that eventually every Netvibes account will have two pages: “a private page, where you subscribe to all the content for your personal, everyday use, and a public page, where you can allow others to access your favorite content – everything that you love on the web.”

Netvibes has its own Developers’ Network. Just a glance at the page tells you they’re committed to “write once, run everywhere.” Using the Universal Widget API, developers can create widgets for users that will run on a wide range of widget platforms and blog systems. The company specifically lists Google IG and Apple Dashboard, and implies they’ll work with many more.

The documentation page seems to be very complete to my non-programmer eyes. Judging from the skeleton example shown, a Netvibes widget is written with XHTML, JavaScript, and CSS. It includes several parts: a header, a model, a controller, and view parts for structure and style. The sample is very clearly shown, in step-by-step fashion. If you’re used to coding for the web, you shouldn’t have significant difficulties creating a widget. You do have to be very careful about writing well-formed code.

There are plenty of how-to sections, including how to turn an RSS feed into a widget and how to test your new widget. There are at least four different example widgets, including one from Weather.com and one that shows an astronomy picture of the day. Of course you’ll find the specifications and a frequently asked questions page.

There’s a developers’ mailing list and an official UWA forum. When I checked it, there were less than 600 posts ranging over 160-some threads. Most of the threads centered on questions about the UWA, but there were also plenty of interesting posts in the Widget Wish List forum from those who had ideas for widgets and couldn’t code them. There is also a Widget Showcase section; apparently widgets that deliver the winning numbers for particular lotteries (after the event of course) are pretty popular, but there was also a virtual fireplace, a chat module, and a widget that let you search for Marmiton recipes.

Marmiton recipes? Well, why not? If there’s someone on the web who built it, there’s probably someone else on the web who wants to see it. In that sense, Netvibes is a middleman like eBay. But it’s not money that’s changing hands, it’s attention, and that’s a far more valuable coin.

As I said earlier, we’ve seen customizable web portals before. There’s even Yahoo Widgets, with literally thousands of widgets you can place on your desktop. The lack of ads is an important difference, but there are other points a good company looking for an opportunity to reach users will keep in mind.

If you want to use Netvibes as a means to reach potential customers, you need to be prepared for the idea that users are going to want to be able to use your content their way, not yours. If eBay built an auction tracker, Netvibers would balk at using it if it significantly limited the auctions available for searching. That’s doubly true if you have a Universe; while it looks like you’d still have your logo on your module, there is nothing stopping someone from copying one or a whole bunch of the modules in your Universe and putting them on their private page – possibly even alongside modules from a competitor.

It does open up a lot of possibilities. Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li notes that “Netvibes provides open access to the world of web 2.0 content. Traditionally, you had to ask each company permission to do this on any Web site. Now you can read Gmail alongside Hotmail and Yahoo Mail.”

For many companies, this may take some getting used to, but in the long run it should do a much better job of getting you the publicity you’re looking for. “With Web 2.0, no one can own the whole space,” Krim noted. “In the past you wanted everyone to come to your site. Right now you need to figure out how to distribute your content to the widest number of platforms.”

The nice thing about this approach is that it doesn’t depend so much on scoring high in Google; it depends on making yourself useful to your customers so that they’ll remember you. It may involve repackaging your content (or at least some of it) so that users can choose to interact with the parts in which they’re most interested. As Krim so charmingly puts it, “People can decompose their newspapers and take the pieces for themselves.” That may sound a little morbid, perhaps, but branching out so that your heart rate doesn’t automatically rise and fall with your position in the SERPs just might help make your rest a little more peaceful.

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