Social news site and once pretender to the Digg throne, Propeller, announced today that they are shutting down.
Propeller was the new name for NetScape’s social news experiment, a project which first emerged out of AOL as the killer app for the Netscape portal and originally led by Jason Calacanis of Weblogs Inc. However, declining market share on the Netscape portal, and the departure of Calacanis from AOL gave rise for the new name and destination, Propeller.com in 2007.
TechCrunch, at the time of the name change, predicted that the site would die within 12 months, but in actual fact it had been puttering along until today. Not that there was much of a pulse left. Remarkably, the ‘featured contributors’ section on the home page had changed their bio to basically say they had quit which has not seemed to bother anyone at AOL.
And their twitter stream has been blustering along like virtual tumbleweed with tweets from hundreds of days ago.
Also, the wikipedia entry for the site is hilarious. In the section entitled ‘Anchors’ which is basically about the team, reading between the lines you find out that it’s run by a ‘team’ of two. I almost spat out my coffee upon reading the phrase, “The rest of the team includes Alexia Prichard.“
A Cautionary Tale
Why Propeller failed is possibly down to the design as it was dubbed the ‘NetScape blunder’ at the time. The huge numbers on the Netscape portal could have presented a serious threat to Digg but it seems that Netscape users were simply not ready for social news. Techcrunch squarely blamed AOL for the failure in December 2007 (which is a bit odd, as Jason Calacanis was running it at the time).
“Within 9 months From November 2006 through to August 2007 (the last full month as a Digg clone) Netscape’s traffic dropped from 305 million pages views a month to 137 million, a 55.1% drop in 9 months.”
The cautionary tale for SEW readers is that a rebranding at any level can be costly both in traffic and user loyalty.
A Powerless Majority
Furthermore, when AOL ditched social voting on Netscape, they were not able to migrate supporters of the new concept to Propeller.com. Loren Baker reported at the time that despite an imminent launch, there were no backlinks to the new domain. Switching domains on any site is one of the most risky things a business can do so a long term, phased transition is almost always recommended over ‘flicking the switch’. Given the immense authority of Netscape’s domain, one would have thought that this would have been the most important asset to leverage.
However, the truth is that most businesses are run by people who have little appreciation for the nuances of search engine optimization. Most would prefer the fanfare and red carpet over the tedious but more successful ‘wax on, wax off‘ type training that Mr Miyagi used to teach Karate Kid (“jacket on, jacket off” for any fans of the re-release).
Had Propeller.com gradually built up authority on the domain before making the switch, they may have been able to migrate more users to the new site. One of the key attractions of social news on the Netscape domain was it’s Google PageRank, which created massive incentive to build a successful social profile and truly become a web content curator, as not only would users hold power on the news, they would arguably have be able to influence Google search results too.
Having no domain authority whatsoever, especially when compared to strong social news alternatives like Digg and Reddit (that really do impact Google results) must have left the powers users of this budding community with no influence. And in social media, that is Kryptonite to any community.