NewHoo Becomes Netscape Open Directory
(note: this was written before the AOL merger, but I think you'll find it is still mostly applicable)
Netscape has acquired the volunteer-compiled NewHoo web directory, which has been rebranded as the Netscape Open Directory. It is currently being made available through Mozilla.org and will be offered later within the Netscape portal site. The announcement came on Nov. 18, and terms of the deal were not disclosed.
NewHoo launched in June with an interesting premise: volunteers would be enlisted to compile the directory, which aimed to be more comprehensive and fresher than the Yahoo directory.
Since that time, NewHoo has compiled over 100,000 web site listings. That's well below those available from competitors such as Yahoo, LookSmart and Snap, but NewHoo also has a huge staff of over 4,000 editors. None of the major directories comes close to having this much surfing power.
On paper, NewHoo's staffing structure meant it could be a powerful force -- but few were using it. "Traffic was nowhere near major portal level," said Rich Skrenta, NewHoo's former CEO who now leads engineering for the Netscape directory.
Now Netscape will now be routing significant numbers of visitors to the directory. The site is already available under the auspices of Mozilla.org, where Netscape has made its browser source code available to developers for reuse and new development. Netscape intends for its directory listings to be open for reuse in the same way.
"Hopefully it will make people more comfortable about participating in the open directory," said Skrenta. "The goal is really to make the biggest and best directory of the web. We want there to be one of them, one big giant authoritative directory of the web. In order to do that, you have to give it away."
It will be interesting to see exactly how people make use of the listings, especially if Netscape's rivals decide to repackage them within their own sites. But the move with Mozilla.org primarily seems to be a way for Netscape to put a positive spin on making money off a directory compiled by thousands of unpaid workers.
That money will come from the other place where Netscape will publish its directory: within its own portal site. This will occur over the next six months, as Netscape decides exactly how to integrate the listings into its channels.
While Netscape has been busy recasting itself as a search-and-navigation portal this year, the NewHoo acquisition is the first real-step the company has made toward backing up its words with original content.
Netscape has always repackaged its portal content, first from Yahoo, and now even more dramatically from Excite. Repackaging may be fine for the captive audience Netscape controls via its browser and its default web pages, but compelling content is what's needed to let Netscape be a player independent of its browser.
Yahoo is the classic example. Its reputation as the best place to locate information on the web is what drives millions to its site, and that reputation is built on its human-compiled directory.
Netscape has made a number of content deals recently, but none of these has substantially improved its search and navigation offerings. NewHoo offers a solid core that Netscape can truly build upon -- and a solid reason for users to consider the service.
NewHoo's volunteer editors are its greatest strength. One analyst quoted in the Wired story below sounds almost dismissive of these volunteers: "How valuable an editor is Joe in Podunk who happens to like Pearl Jam," he asks. The answer is a lot more valuable than an overworked generalist editor with no real passion about the band.
After all, volunteers usually take up subjects in which they have an interest or a degree of expertise. That means they may know the topic far better than a generalist editor may, and so are likely to produce higher quality listings.
One need only look at the web to see this. Many of the best entertainment web sites are volunteer efforts created by fans, which often make "official" web sites look poor in comparison.
At the moment, this potential is best seen in what Skrenta calls NewHoo's "bright spots," scattered areas in the directory where editors with special interests have expanded listings well beyond Yahoo. Compare Yahoo's Thyroid Disease category to NewHoo's Thyroid Disorders category, for example.
In another example, I found a NewHoo category called "Urban Speleology," which is about exploring manmade tunnels and caverns, such as missile silos. Yahoo has no matching category -- this is clearly a case where someone has an interest in a subject that's expressed by organizing web sites for the web as a whole.
(Correction: I learned after this was written that Yahoo does have a similar category: Urban Exploration)
Of course, NewHoo's top level subject of Spelelogy is woefully under populated when compared to Yahoo. The directory has a long way to go until its bright spots become the norm. But by their sheer numbers, NewHoo's editors have the potential to divide and conquer the web in much greater depth than can rival directories.
NewHoo's editors can also be its greatest weakness. Some editors sign up with their own agendas. Shortly after the directory launched, there were several public complaints about editors that listed their own sites as cool and then did little more to maintain their categories.
Skrenta says this is mostly corrected now, with editors tending to police themselves and report any undesirable actions.
Behind the scenes, NewHoo operates dramatically differently than directory leader Yahoo.
Yahoo believes in centralizing its surfing staff as much as possible: most of them work in the same building in Santa Clara, California -- even some of those responsible for non-US listings. Srinija Srinivasan, who runs Yahoo's listings, has told me in the past that she feels this central gathering is vital to assembling an effective guide.
A central gathering doesn't mean central control. Classification rules at Yahoo don't come down from on high. Instead, editors may respond to the rapidly changing web on a day-to-day basis. While they have a high degree of individual control, they also work with each other to decide when to create new subcategories or to reorganize existing ones. That's where face-to-face contact is seen as essential.
In contrast, NewHoo editors are spread across the globe. Skrenta says they live in 229 countries and speak at least 20 languages among them. Face-to-face contact is impossible, but they still work together via email.
"Usually, editors within a particular category will communicate quite a bit," Skrenta said. "People tend to converse with editors around them, and it does tend to flow down in a tree," he added, referring to the fact that editors that oversee categories higher in the directory tend to watch over the progress of subcategories that are produced by other editors.
NewHoo even lacks someone watching over the entire directory structure. It has no counterpart to Yahoo's Srinivasan. NewHoo's five founding employees, now employed by Netscape, have left things mostly to the volunteers. Nor is there a desire to change this.
"We don't have any plans to build up a big editorial staff inside of Netscape. The model is to put this in the hands of the people on the web and let them at it," Skrenta said.
I'd be surprised if this hands-off approach lasts long. I suspect it will be essential that the guide eventually have at least some top-level editors on staff, as it continues to grow. But the crucial question is whether the mass of volunteer editors will keep working for free.
Netscape's not the first to take advantage of free labor. Community sites like GeoCities and Tripod have made use of their members' efforts to sell ad space for some time. But in return, members have been given free web space.
In contrast, it seems NewHoo editors have been working under an esprit de corps, inspired by the opportunity to build a new and valuable resource for the web community. They still have that opportunity, but they are also building something valuable for a large company that stands to benefit.
Of course, without Netscape's support, the NewHoo directory likely would have continued to be a good idea, but one that few people would know about. The greater exposure in partnership with Netscape is a huge benefit that editors are receiving, and a reason for them to stay on, Skrenta says.
"For them, as a NewHoo editor, they have a lot more exposure now. More people are going to see and use their work. They all seem pretty jazzed about it," he said.
Netscape Open Directory Project
NewHoo: Yahoo Built By The Masses
The Search Engine Report, July 1, 1998
More details about the service, with information on the end that covers submission.
Netscape Acquires NewHoo
Wired, Nov. 18, 1998