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Industry Standard

Netscape takes on Yahoo with open-source model

January 5, 2000
Web posted at: 11:32 a.m. EST (1632 GMT)

by Elinor Abreu

(IDG) -- Netscape's Open Directory project was once ignored by bigger players as a do-it-yourself index of Web sites. But since its launch just over a year ago, the directory has become popular enough to spawn a copycat, and rivals are beginning to attack both its reliability


Managing the net

Around 15 paid staffers contribute part-time to the directory, which has been adopted by a host of portals including Lycos and AltaVista and sites such as the Autism Society of Alabama. But the bulk of the work surfing the Web, writing abstracts of sites and categorizing them is done by almost 20,000 volunteers. Over 1.2 million sites in more than 190,000 categories have been compiled so far, and about 100,000 new sites are added each month: "About the growth rate of the actual Net itself," says Chris Tolles, senior marketing manager for the Open Directory.
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While the directory's growth is impressive, rivals charge that using unpaid and unaccountable - editors can result in shoddy and biased work. Deanna Sanford, a Microsoft Network lead product manager, claims she has discovered Open Directory editors promoting their own sites.

But Open Directory officials say there's plenty of opportunity to catch dubious editing. "We have a feedback form. If anyone complains about bias or problems in the directory, we get to it right away," says Tolles. One or two sites are removed each week, he adds.

The Open Directory Project was launched when Netscape bought NewHoo in November 1998. Rich Skrenta, now Open Directory's director of engineering, and four other engineers created the grassroots directory five months earlier, basing it on the open-source model, in which source code is developed and distributed freely over the Net by developers around the globe. and editorial integrity.

But execs at Yahoo (YHOO) , the granddaddy of Web directories, say bigger isn't necessarily better. "They cover more ground," admits Srinija Srinivasan, Yahoo VP and editor in chief, but she says Yahoo aims to include only the most relevant sites in its searches.

Disney, however, found Netscape's method efficient enough to imitate it. After finding that its 20 to 30 staffers couldn't index the Web fast enough, Disney's moved to its own volunteer model in September.

And LookSmart is finding the Open Directory a powerful rival. Lycos replaced LookSmart with it in April. AltaVista likewise added it in October, downplaying its earlier connection with LookSmart.

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"The Open Directory advantage is that it is more scalable, and you can take advantage of the passionate people out there who really know a tremendous amount about their subject area," says Tracy Roberts, director of marketing for AltaVista search.

The other attraction is that Open Directory is free. In order to use it, sites must simply give credit to and link back to Open Directory and offer information on how people can become editors.

LookSmart maintains that its trained editors, some of whom hold graduate degrees in library science, can provide higher quality links. "My gut feeling is that free is attractive, but people will see what more we bring to the table," asserts Kate Wingerson, editor in chief of LookSmart, which has about 220 editors and 1.3 million entries in its directory.

Meanwhile, the Open Directory model may raise some legal questions. In what could be a precedent-setting case, America Online (AOL) 's use of volunteers for its community guides has prompted a class-action suit and an investigation by the Department of Labor.

Unlike AOL, Netscape doesn't charge consumers for its services, but the company does sell ads on the search-result pages at Netcenter. As a for-profit company, Netscape ultimately derives some financial benefit from Open Directory, according to attorney Bill Sokol of the Van Bourg law firm in Oakland, Calif. And that could spur scrutiny.

Even though Open Directory editors don't mind volunteering their time and effort for the project, argues Sokol, "the social norm we've agreed upon for the time being is that our culture, our society, our economy works better if you don't let employers use people's services for free."

Does Covalent have a recipe for open-source success?
December 28, 1999
Open source software gets a safety net
December 24, 1999
A dose of open source realism
December 23, 1999

Netscape directory making a splash
(The Industry Standard)
Netscape acquires Community Directory Project
(PC World Online)
Netscape's volunteers index the Web
(PC World Online)
Netscape buys community directory
(The Industry Standard)
Are volunteers being too charitable to AOL?
(The Industry Standard)
Lycos wants you to rank the Web
(PC World Online)
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