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Wednesday, May 25th 2005

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Highlights of the Week: Trouble at the ODP

Trouble at the ODPThe Open Directory Project is the largest human edited directory of web sites and documents existing online at this time. While many search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Ask and MSN maintain larger databases of electronically spidered sites, the volunteer editors at the ODP read, sort and classify all submitted content before it is added to their search-database. Started in 1998 in reaction to difficulties webmasters had getting their content into Yahoo's then human edited directory, the Open Directory Project was a simple and effective idea.

Founded in June 1998 by Rich Skrenta and Bob Truel, the ODP drew its early inspiration from the first major open-source cooperative initiative, the GNU Project . It was even originally named after the GNU project, launched as GnuHoo. The name was quickly changed to NewHoo in order to avoid confusion between the two projects. Over time, the NewHoo morphed into the more organized Open Directory Project. The ODP is owned and operated by AOL's Netscape division which has pledged to keep the directory 100% free as part of Netscape's social contract with web users.

Over the years, inclusion in the ODP became increasingly important, especially after Google began using it as the primary database for a Google directory. Getting a site listed at the ODP almost guaranteed a beneficial visit from Googlebot as a listing there was seen as a vote of confidence from a live-human reviewer.

For the past twenty-four months however, webmasters and search marketers have expressed extreme frustration while waiting for their sites to get listed in DMOZ. The Open Directory is a volunteer driven initiative, and like other non-paying projects they often have a hard time finding good help. Submissions to categories are backed up for months and in some cases, even years with many of the over 1500 unique directory categories lacking volunteers assigned to edit them. A backlog in sites awaiting review is one thing but recently, accusations of bribery, favouritism and editors lashing out at critics have caused many to lower their previously favourable estimations of the Open Directory.

The submission backlog, incidentally, grew so rapidly that the ODP editors opened a discussion forum known as the Resource Zone specifically to address questions and concerns from webmasters. After operating for over a year, the collective of ODP editors that ran the Resource Zone elected to close down the most used service available on the forum, the Site Submission Zone. While the forum was established to discuss ODP issues in an open and public space, the Site Submission Zone took far too much energy to maintain and moderate. Editors felt it did not offer users enough relevant information as much of what could or perhaps should be said to site owners would fall into the confidential category.

For several months, there have been accusations that some ODP editors are accepting payments for faster attention. Stemming from the Blog, Corrupt DMOZ Editor which was started in December 2004 by DMOZ editor Ana Thema, the blog lists several entries detailing systemic corruption throughout the Open Directory editorial structure. In her February 8 posting, Ana states, "Links are a commodity. Links from DMOZ are a hot commodity . Everything in this world is a commodity: everything. If you disbelieve that someone would be so corrupt as to sell submissions into the ODP, then Dorothy, this is your wake up call." In other posts she claims she uses at least a dozen unique editor names and maintains a network with dozens of other ODP editors. Reading Ana Thema's blog is much like watching one's first episode of the corrupt-cop drama, The Shield .

Another issue critics have had with editors at the Open Directory Project is one of favouritism. Editors have almost total control over their sections of the directory. While there is a hierarchy of editors with Meta-Editors having the power to re-edit categories that have received complaints, most meta-editors don't have a lot of spare time. This has led to some "fixing" the listings to favour their friends and associates. There are stories of search engine marketers becoming editors at the ODP and then gently favouring sites that would benefit their clients. A more sophisticated story tells of a search engine marketer manipulating ODP results to generate stronger Google page-rank scores for his clients. Another tells of ODP editors networking with each other to provide reciprocal favours.

In a case of reverse favouritism, Ana Thema posted a story at from another DMOZ editor that states, "My arch competitor had a dupe content subdomain that they set up for traffic overflow and I changed their dmoz listing to the subdomain with duplicate content and it slaughtered their rankings for a couple of months. Speaking as someone with 4 years of sabotaging experience, switch their listing from www. to non-www from time-to-time. Switch them from to, stuff like that."

After complaining about abuses and neglect, some webmasters might expect an apology or a reasonable explanation from the Open Directory Project. None has been forthcoming though the Resource Zone was intended to be a space for DMOZ editors to communicate with DMOZ users. A growing problem for the ODP is the lack of patience users and editors are showing with each other in various search related discussion forums. A post over at the Search Engine Watch Forums likens the accountability of some ODP editors to Seinfeld's character, the Soup-Nazi. According to the post, criticize these editors and, "NO SOUP FOR YOU! NEXT!"

In its defense, the Open Directory Project is staffed by volunteers, all of whom are humans with real lives, real jobs and other responsibilities. Given the backlog of submissions and the deterioration of the directory, it is rather difficult to see them being able to straighten out the mess quickly or easily. While many DMOZ editors put up with a lot of abuse, almost all of them (with the possible exception of Ana Thema) take great pride in the size and scope of the Open Directory Project.

For search engine marketers however, the question of relevance vs. effort comes into play. At one time, a listing at the Open Directory was mandatory in order to guarantee strong listings at Google, Yahoo and other search engines. Today, while still helpful, the strength of a Open Directory listing has been diluted by the search engines themselves. In an article titled, "...Time for The ODP to Close?", Search Engine Watch editor Danny Sullivan suggests three ways the venerable DMOZ could reorganize and revitalize itself. Whatever it does, it should do it soon as the importance of the largest human edited directory of websites is decreasing as quickly as the backlog of submitted sites is increasing.

by Jim Hedger, News Editor
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Major Player Updates: Google Gone Yahoo? - Yahoo vs. FindWhat - Bouncing the Bulter?

Google Gone Yahoo?

Google Personalization
Click to enlarge

They say that everything old becomes new again. This adage is proving true in the search engine world as well with Google adopting a personalization plan that makes it look a lot like Yahoo and other search portals. Designed to allow Google users access to its various search tools, the portal displays Gmail, Google News, and Google Maps (labeled Driving Directions). It also calls US Movie Listings (by zip code), stock tickers, weather information, Wired News headlines, a quote of the day (from The Quotes Page), word of the day (from Dictionary.Com), and headlines from the NYTimes, Slashdot and the BBC. There are currently no selections following subscribed Google Groups or Google News Alerts.

Personalizing your own version of the Google homepage is made easy with small edit links appearing above each enhancement. Users are able to select up to 9 references from each source with the exception of the Driving Directions feature, which requires new searches each time it is used. Users can also alter the layout of their personalized Google homepage with a simple drag and drop interface. Google, of course, tracks information on every user though it is not serving personalized advertising at this time.

While this is Google's first obvious foray into presenting themselves as a user-driven portal, personalization features offered by Yahoo and MSN are older and therefore more developed. Google is not likely going to swipe any users from its rivals with their portal design but they are likely to retain long-term users, especially those who become addicted to one-page access to their various Google accounts.

Yahoo vs. FindWhat: Round 2 in 30 Days

Yahoo!Yahoo's paid search marketing division (formerly known as Overture) sued the smaller PPC firm FindWhat for patent infringement back in 2002. The suit is based on Overture's original patent outlining the bid-for-placement ranking model used by most PPC firms. Two weeks ago a California jury found themselves unable to render a verdict resulting in the declaration of a mistrial. The suit is schedule to return to court on June 24.

The case has raised the anxiety levels of most PPC search-advertising firms. If Yahoo is successful in their case against FindWhat, what happens for the rest of the industry? Over the past year, scores of firms have established themselves in the PPC market; growth that has spawned a burgeoning service and advertising sector. Google settled a similar suit with Yahoo last summer just before launching its IPO in late August. Part of the settlement granted Google a perpetual license to the patent.

Find WhatFindWhat watcher Jordan Rohan from RBC Capital Markets told investors he expects an out-of-court settlement in the range of $7 to $8 million. A settlement for FindWhat might not settle the waters for other PPC firms Yahoo turns its eye on in the future. FindWhat is one of the larger tier2 PPC players with cash reserves around $50 million and could likely better afford a settlement and licensing fee than other smaller PPC firms.

The next hearing might be scheduled for June 24 but the actual suit might not actually get back to the courts for a while yet. FindWhat maintains the patent is unenforceable due to inequitable conduct on the part of Overture. A rule with US tech patents is that the methods and techniques outlined in a patent must be put into commercial use within 365 days of the patent's filing. That topic as well as a number of other motions filed by FindWhat need to be moved off the docket first.

Bouncing the BulterBouncing the Bulter?

Is the Butler finally being dismissed now that Ask has been purchased by InterActiveCorp?  Rumour has it Barry Diller, IAC CEO is preparing to rename the Ask Jeeves search engine, paring its name down to a single word, ASK.  This wouldn't be the first time the jovial Butler has been dumped in Ask Jeeve's history. Just after the dot-com crash of 2000 Jeeves was laid-off. He was brought back after former Ask CEO Skip Battle found him drinking by the Oakland docks, slumped over his last remaining friend, the sock puppet mascot.

by Jim Hedger, News Editor
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The Net Reality: Tiny Devices to Access World Wide Web

NokiaNokia today unveiled a handheld Internet Display Tablet, its first non-phone mobile device. The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet is about ¾ of an inch thick, 5.6" wide and 3.1" deep. It uses a touch-screen that is 4.1 inches diagonally. Created to access home wireless networks, the Tablet can also locate and access local and commercial hotspots. Retailers are expected to list the Tablet for about $350US. As it is designed to be an Internet access appliance, the mini-computer does not require as much strength or processing power as a PC. It does come with expandable memory modules as well as a USB port and Bluetooth transmitter, making it adaptable with personal computers, laptops, handhelds and cell phones.

The Tablet uses a Linux operating system, a departure from the Microsoft designed Symbian Windows based cell phone platform. Nokia will publish the OS code in the hopes that open source designers will make improvements and innovations on it.

Following on the success of Apple's iPod and previous mobile digital devices such as Palm Pilots and other handhelds, we should expect to see a number of smaller personal computing and access devices appearing this year.

by Jim Hedger, News Editor

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