Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Post Mortem on Zeal

Search engine guru Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch fame reported yesterday on his Search Engine Watch Blog that LookSmart will shutter the Zeal website on March 28, 2006. In notifying users of the imminent demise of Zeal, LookSmart took the opportunity to plug Furl. To its credit, LookSmart gave its community of volunteer Zealots some notice. One can only wonder what plans LookSmart has for the Zeal namespace, which currently has a Google PageRank of no less than 8/10.

Last year, LookSmart CEO Dave Hills reached out to XODPer Michael Doyle (aka Polecat) in response to an e-mail that Doyle had sent Hill narrating Doyle's misgivings about Zeal's misguided editorial policies. Said editorial policies were being interpreted by Doyle's supervising editor at Zeal "as meaning that if there is any direct selling activity then the site is commercial. A collector offering to buy and sell has been deemed commercial. . . ." According to Doyle, "This modified Editor's policy, if strictly applied, would actually create a . . . disenfranchised group of . . . sites that lack the resources to pay LookSmart . . . , but are not allowed to be listed on Zeal due to some subjective guideline rule interpretation."

I replied to Doyle, "When Zeal was first acquired by LookSmart, some expressed serious doubts about the practicality of having a community of volunteer editors being subjected to the content control policies of a commercial directory staffed by professional
editors. Apparently, such doubts were well founded. . . .What astonishes me is that there are still some people who are interested in joining indexing communities like the late great ODP, Zeal, JoeAnt, and GoGuides. Even more astonishing to me is that there are still people out there seeking to exploit volunteer labor."

A short time later, I ran into the proprietors of GoGuides and Best of the Web at Search Engine Strategies San Jose 2005, and I was impressed by the fact that they were both doing quite well with their Web directories, but it wasn't that big of a mystery as to why. As I noted previously on XODP, both of these Web directories rely upon a paid submission model. This is not to say that any and all volunteer-edited Web directories are doomed to failure, but rather that there is nothing inherently evil about making a profit, and that economic viability can help insure the success of any worthwhile enterprise.

A Post Mortem on ODP

Shortly after losing my ODP editing privileges, I founded the XODP Yahoo! eGroup on or about May 28, 2000, and shortly thereafter I published my ODP swan song in the form of a guest column at Traffick.com entitled Life After the Open Directory Project. To this day, some six years later, I still receive e-mails from people who find and read that article -- or, more properly, are referred to it by other XODPers -- and are astonished to find out that it was written so long ago. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary by ODP cheerleaders, things have not improved much at ODP. In fact, they have gotten much, much worse.

Simply put, ODP is a failed experiment in open content indexing that jumped the proverbial shark when it sold out to Professional Content Providers (PCPs) who were in bed with AOL-Time Warner, as set forth in the aforementioned guest column that I wrote for Traffick.com. At that time, quality control and scalability were already serious issues at ODP that the powers that be had failed and refused to address, and when I founded XODP, my hope was that various people who were as disillusioned with ODP as I was would join me in exploring various alternatives. Many people have, and there are now a wide variety of alternatives to ODP, most notable among them being Wikipedia.

While not a web directory, Wikipedia has many similarities to ODP, but Wikipedia also has some noteworthy differences in its core philosophy. Specifically, Wikipedia has never been a commercial venture -- which is how and why ODP was originally formed -- and Wikipedia's founder Jimbo Wales has done a very good job of keeping Wikipedia's online community relatively open. In fact, some people -- not me -- would say that the Wikipedia community is too open. In sum, despite its shortcomings and limitations, I think that Wikipedia is a very positive and progressive force for change when it comes to the indexing of the Internet. Indeed, Wikipedia goes beyond the mere indexing of content; it generates new reference content faster than any other medium in human history, with said content being comparable in quality to traditional encyclopedias, something that ODP could have done if it wasn't so busy trying to prove God-knows-what to whomever-may-care and root out "abuse" among its volunteers.

Beyond the desire to exploit volunteers for personal profit, the original purpose of ODP was to provide an alternative to the then very slow site submission process at the Yahoo! Web Directory. However, somewhere along the way, ODP became an ongoing Orwellian conspiracy of ignorance and incompetence with a backlog of millions of site submissions that takes great pride in . . . God-knows-what. Meanwhile, Yahoo! and various other smaller Web directories have implemented paid site submission programs that have pretty much made ODP irrelevant. In the final analysis, and with some notable exceptions, a listing on ODP only translates to one inbound link.

Those who cannot afford paid site submission programs can ask for a waiver or simply participate in various online forums and list their websites on their forum profiles. Similarly, people can contribute to Wikipedia and list their sites on their Wikipedia user profiles. People can also join the blogosphere, which has proven itself to be an indexing force that is just as powerful as search engines like Google. Finally, if someone cares deeply enough about the quality of indexing available for online content, they can start their own Internet index. To this end, I started publishing the XODP Web Guides on or about July 31, 2002, a small-scale enterprise that quickly turned profitable and could easily grow much larger and more profitable if I were not busy taking care of the many needs of my paying clients.

The XODP Web Guides are unique in that there is no submission process. Rather, there is a straightforward research process that is made profitable by the addition of a single sponsored link, with that single sponsored link being provided by an independent third-party who stands at arms length. At the same time, I am not above accepting sponsorship of individual Web Guides. However, when people want to pay me to promote their websites, I usually refer them to one of the many Web directories that readily accept paid submissions, and I have compiled a list of these Web directories that is mailed out automatically to anyone who joins the XODP Yahoo! eGroup as part of the document that you are now reading.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Trexy -- Rhymes with "Sexy"

While in New York for the latest installment of Search Engine Strategies 2006, I stumbled upon the booth of Trexy, a company that has truly built a better mousetrap in the search engine space. However, Trexy -- rhymes with "sexy" -- is not a search engine. Rather, it is a collaborative search engine portal that allows Trexy users to track the history of their search engine queries and search results and share those virtual bread crumb trails with other Trexy users.

Whether one is doing scholarly research or marketing research, the meta data that one can obtain from Trexy is invaluable. Specifically, Trexy provides meta data that is similar in kind to the type of data that one might find using the Overture Search Term Suggestion Tool and/or the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. However, Trexy provides meta data for over 3,000 search engines, and the data that Trexy provides is much more detailed and granular than search engines would normally reveal. Simply put, Trexy allows you to look over someone else's shoulder who has already succeeded in navigating the Sargasso Sea of information that is the Internet.

Trexy is the brainchild of Nigel and Megan Hamilton, a brother and sister team that created the Turbo10 Search Engine a few years ago. Like Trexy, Turbo10 was an innovation of existing search engine technology. Specifically, Turbo10 is a customizable meta search that sends queries to two or more search engines that end users choose and then returns one set of prioritized results, not unlike the better known Copernic meta search.

I wrote about Turbo 10 on XODP when I first discovered it a few years ago, and the only problem that I have observed with Turbo10 since that time is that of the proverbial problem of the chicken and the egg -- i.e., because of the de facto hegemony of Google, not that many people are using Turbo 10 just yet. But Trexy may be the killer application that can change all that. And even if Google or some other search engine remains the 800 pound gorilla in the search engine space, Trexy should be able to peacefully coexist with said 800 pound gorilla.

While still in beta, Trexy has over a quarter of a million registered users, and the only real problem that I see with Trexy is that of the proverbial "tail wagging the dog." Specifically, most of the data that Trexy collects will almost certainly be from the purveyors of information seeking information on their own placement for the search terms that they consider important rather than coming from people doing serious research and earnestly seeking information. This problem is not unique to Trexy; it's not even unique to the Internet. In fact, I see it happen all the time in all types of research, and it's too soon to tell whether Trexy will be able to respond to this challenge. Nonetheless, the Trexy team seems to be on the right track.