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Google Acquires Deja Newsgroup Service

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Google purchased the Deja newsgroup archives last month and is now running them within its own site. Despite saving the service, Google came under criticism from hardcore Deja users upset about lost functionality during the transition period.

The change came as a shock to many of those who depended on Deja and liked how it worked. Without warning on February 12, they had a completely new site thrust upon them and lost valuable features they had grown used to.

The reaction to the change was intense, to the point of the Save Deja site putting up Google logos with big crosses over them. Google, which has enjoyed near universal praise from web searchers since its launch, was suddenly being lambasted by critics out of the Usenet corner.

Lost in the fray was the fact that the alternative could have been that Deja users found nothing at all waiting for them, when trying to reach the service last month. Deja was going out of business, and the newsgroup archives could have been shut down at any time.

Consider it this way. Deja had a car that people used to drive, but the car was about to break down. Google stepped in and bought the car. That meant it had to strip out the steering wheel and remove the dashboard to do necessary work. However, knowing that people still needed to use the car, they kept it running. It didn't work near as well as before, but at least it was something. More importantly, Google said it would continue to work on the car, hopefully to make it better than before.

Well, if Google was playing newsgroup mechanic, some Deja users weren't prepared to cut it any slack. The wanted their car back now, exactly as it was before. The attacks continued, and less than two weeks after the transition, the suggestion was raised that the archives should be given away for open source volunteers to work with.

Things seem to have mellowed now. Google has added some more features to the service, and perhaps there's a little more faith among former Deja users that Google will continue to improve the site.

"We just launched our improved browsing at the end of last week, so that's up, and over the course of the next few months, we want to restore all the functionality and more, including [online” posting," said Google president Sergey Brin.

In fact, Google has already stepped up its improvement schedule and expects to provide a posting ability by the end of the month. Also, an ability to search by date should appear next week, the company says. Improvements to discussion thread viewing are also underway.

Within the next six weeks, users will be able to access all of Deja's archives, which stretch back to 1995. The archives, which contain 500 million messages, are currently only accessible to the middle of last year. Contrary to some reports, this is not due to Google's takeover of Deja. Instead, this has been the case at Deja since that service did some equipment relocations last year.

Why not maintain what Deja had, until everything Google is currently working on was ready to go? Too costly, Brin said.

"Even if we could have some how kept the people who had the skills, it would have been prohibitively expensive for us," Brin said.

What Google took away from Deja's Austin data center through the Deja acquisition wasn't the preconfigured equipment and network for the service. Instead, Google literally offloaded just the raw archives themselves.

"We went down there with a bunch of disks and shipped them back," Brin said.

If Google were to do it over again, it would have tried to make the transition less painful for Deja users, to the degree possible, Brin said.

"To be fair, maybe we should have done our homework. But there wasn't time," he explained. "Basically, they were shutting down shop. We had to go quickly."

Even forewarning users that the change was coming wasn't something Google said it could do.

"If we were to do it again, I think it would have been better if we were able to somehow warn users," Brin said. "Under the negotiations, we weren't able to do that."

In the wake of the transition criticisms, suggestions have been raised that the newsgroup posts don't really belong to any particular company that archives them but rather to the authors themselves. It's an argument used to support the idea that the archives should be released to a non-profit group. Brin said that this could happen.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to get a copy to the Internet Archive," he said. "We certainly want to preserve data for the world and historians and so forth."

Brin said that the response from its users to the Deja takeover has been "overwhelmingly" positive, with the complaints coming chiefly from a vocal minority.

"There are thousands of users who were upset compared to millions of Usenet users, Brin said. But he didn't discount the worries of the smaller group. "These were heavy users, and their concerns need to be considered."

To some degree, Google may not have focused on the Deja interface itself because, coming from a search background, it saw the ability to keyword search among the data as the chief tool that needed to be maintained immediately.

"It was kind of a surprise and learning experience for us to get this negative reaction," Brin said. "I think we underestimated how much those features were used." Explaining further, he said. "I used Usenet a lot, and I just think of it in terms of your newsreader [for access and posting” and Deja just for searching."

In other words, the extent to which people were using Deja as their interface into Usenet wasn't clear. It wasn't just a newsgroup search service, for many. Instead, it was a newsgroup navigation and interaction tool. It let you get around with the system, adding your posts or following threads of interest. Losing the Deja interface for these people is like no longer being able to use Outlook, Eudora, Pegasus Mail or some other email program. Sure, you can email with some other software, but you want the one you've grown to love.

My advice is to send your suggestions to Google but also give them the two or three months they say it will take to finish making the transition. The company is unique in showing support for maintaining newsgroup archiving while others such as AltaVista and the former RemarQ have gotten out.

In other Google news, the company has launched country-specific versions for France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Sites for Japan and Korea are also in the works. For the most part, the European sites tend to do domain restriction -- pages that don't appear within the .uk domain, for example, are filtered out of Google UK results. However, Google also says other things are being done to avoid accidentally missing some relevant pages. Expect more on this, in a future follow up.

By the way, some people found that Google was redirecting them to a particular version based on their location -- some in the Netherlands and the UK were sent to Google Germany automatically, for example. Google says it is working to solve this problem. Should you end up at a country-specific version, use the "Google in English" or "Google.com" link below the search box to reach the main Google site itself.

Google has also launched a version of its service for wireless web i-mode users in Japan. More information about this service and the others mentioned can be found below.

Google Groups
http://groups.google.com

You'll find newsgroup searching from Google here. Be sure to view both the Help and Advanced Search pages for tips and additional features. Links to both are next to the search button, on the home page.

Deja to Google Mappings
http://groups.google.com/googlegroups/deja_syntax.html

This page is designed to help Deja power users perform similar actions at Google Groups.

Open access challenge to Google
The Register, Feb. 22, 2001
http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/4/17109.html

More complaints and some suggested solutions from Deja users.

Google Groups Watch -- New Functionality
ResearchBuzz, Feb. 21, 2001
http://www.researchbuzz.com/news/2001/feb15feb2101.html

Tara Calishain half-seriously joked months ago that Google should buy Deja -- then it happened. Some comments from her on the transition and what's missing.

Deja 'Revolt' Against Google
Wired, Feb. 21, 2001
http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,41926,00.html

Comprehensive article on issues some former Deja users have with the transition to Google. The story leads with the suggestion that Google took a large part of the Deja archives offline. Actually, Deja had taken them offline months earlier. Covers a suggestion by "Deja Refugee" that the archives are important historical information which should be entrusted to an open source project, rather than just one company. No mention is made of the archive AltaVista once had from its own crawling or the information RemarQ maintained, until it left the newsgroup game.

Google Acquires Deja.com
Information Today, Feb. 19, 2001
http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb010219-1.htm

Very nice history on the relationship between Usenet and Deja News, and how to many people, Deja was Usenet.

Readers Letters My Google Usenet - wrong or right?
The Register, Feb. 15, 2001
http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/35/16930.html

More comments primarily from very upset people over the Google Deja transition.

Deja UI too costly to save, Google boss tells Reg
The Register, Feb. 14, 2001
http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/6/16888.html

Google CEO Larry Page explains that maintaining the Deja interface would have been too expensive. Then there's further criticism that Google doesn't seem to understand how newsgroup searching should be conducted -- this judgment coming just two days after the launch of the developing beta web site.

Netizens blinded by 'half-assed' Google stunt
The Register, Feb. 13, 2001
http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/4/16851.html

Summary of initial complaints after the acquisition.

Google buys remaining Deja.com business
News.com, Feb. 12, 2001
http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-200-4794014.html

Some history on Deja and comments from a Deja executive on the sale.

Newsgroup Searching: And Then There Was One
The Search Engine Report, Sept. 4, 2000
http://searchenginewatch.com/sereport/00/09-newsgroups.html

Discusses how Deja became the only remaining player in the newsgroup game and how even its full archives were no longer online, as of the middle of last year.

Whose Link Is It Anyway?
Wired, July 26, 2000
http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,37715,00.html

If Deja hadn't gone out of business, then its interface need never have changed. However, Deja came under fire when it tried to generate revenue by automatically linking product mentions in Usenet posts to commerce portions of its web site.

DejaNews, Mining Company Make Significant Relaunches
The Search Engine Report, June 2, 1999
http://searchenginewatch.com/sereport/99/06-deja.html

Covers the change of the DejaNews Usenet site into Deja consumer recommendation site.

Save Deja
http://www.savedeja.com/

A home for those seeking a restoration of the former Deja's functionality at Google. News, polls and links.

Del` News
http://sourceforge.net/projects/delanews/

Proposed project to create an open source, distributed searchable newsgroup archive.

Usenet Replayer
http://www.usenet-replayer.com/

When I did my last article on the demise of newsgroup searching, a reader suggested this site as an alternative. You might have more luck than I did in trying to make it work.

Internet Archive
http://www.archive.org/

The project makes "snapshots" of the web by crawling it on a regular basis.

Google France
http://www.google.fr

Google Germany
http://www.google.de

Google UK
http://www.google.co.uk

Google i-mode edition
http://www.google.com/imode

Allows i-mode wireless web users in Japan to access the Google search engine and have it translate any page into a format designed for their phones.

Google to power I-mode wireless searches
News.com, Feb. 27, 2001
http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-201-4968768-0.html

More details on the Google i-mode service for wireless web users in Japan. "But what U.S. carrier is going to put up a search engine that helps people go beyond what's on their menu?" asks one analyst. Well, maybe it won't be on the default screen when your cell phone offers web access, but anyone today that can reach Google manually using a cell phone already has access to a mobile-enhanced edition of the search engine. It will translate any page into a format for your phone.


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