Top 10 User-Generated Sites: Thumbs Up or Down?

Thursday Nov 29th 2007 by James Maguire
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The Web 2.0 trend toward getting users to do the heavy lifting is radically remaking the Internet. Will the current top sites continue to be leaders – or losers?

Imagine you’re in a meeting with a high-powered venture capitalist. The kind of guy who just gleams money. If only you could convince him to invest in your Web property, you’d be on your way to Tahiti, there to sip Pina Coladas and count your cash as delightful sea breezes wash in.

But how do you convince this VC genius to reach into his ultra-deep pockets and fund your site? What’s the magic word? Okay, take a deep breath and try this catch-phrase:

User-generated

Bingo! You did it. Now that Mr. Moneybags knows you’ll be fueling your Web traffic with user-generated content – instead of the expensive kind created by journalists – he’ll be happy to front you a fat stake. Congratulations.

User-generated content is the monster that’s devouring the Internet, remaking it in its own, free-form, semi-chaotic image. Web publishing, it turns out, is a supremely interactive medium – it’s not merely an online version of an old-fashioned newspaper. People don’t want to just read, they want to talk back, discuss, curse, throw venomous personal attacks, and – occasionally – say something positive.

It’s this rage for user-generated that inspired Time magazine to crown “You” as Person of the Year in 2006. It’s also what prompted Rupert Murdoch to spend mega-bucks on MySpace, and why Google dug deep for YouTube. The user-generated wave will only crest higher in the years ahead.

But what about the current sites that are leading the charge? Will today’s pioneers, the early adopters that forged this trend, continue to set the standard? Some fearless predictions:

1) MySpace

Complete monthly visitors: 68.2 million.
Headed up or down? Down.

The quintessential gathering place for the teen-tween set, MySpace has seen its day in the sun. Traffic data from Quantcast reveals it has been steadily losing ground this year. The problem: With the rise of the more mature Facebook, MySpace now seems like the place for “kiddies” – a death knell for people who really are kiddies. MySpace, in a word, is just so 2006. Still, the site has an incredibly loyal audience, so its fade will be a slow one.

2) Wikipedia

Complete monthly visitors: 41.4 million.
Headed up or down? Down.

Plenty of competitive sites are being built, but Wikipedia’s entrenchment in Google (on the first page for zillions of topics) means its first mover advantage will be tough to unseat. As of recent count, the user-created encyclopedia boasts 2.1 million articles – and growing.

But it has a glaring weakness. At its typical error rate (roughly estimated at 2-3 per article – at least) Wikipedia offers somewhere between 4.2 and 6.3 million errors in its pages – a veritable plague of misinformation. Long term, the concept of an amateur-created encyclopedia, with opinionated writers squabbling over competing versions, isn’t sustainable. As the Internet matures, a heavyweight like Encyclopedia Britannica will open its pages online to suck in the ad dollars. When that happens, Wikipedia will die a well-deserved death.

3) YouTube

Complete monthly visitors: 23.8 million.
Headed up or down? Up.

It’s an unbeatable combination: Monkeys on skateboards, a global lip-sync festival, and amateur videos of politicians making compromising comments. You’ve heard of attempts to steamroll over YouTube, (Joost, for instance) but notice they’ve failed to gain critical mass. YouTube has two big pluses in terms of attracting users: it’s very easy to use, and its rules regarding copyright are comparatively lax. But its real trump card is being owned by Google. Google rules the Internet, now and for the foreseeable future. (And, in fact, Google is the ultimate user-generated business, since its search listings display other people’s Web sites.)

4) Facebook

Complete monthly visitors: 22.5 million.
Headed up or down? Up.

In 2006, Facebook began reaching outside its traditional audience of students – with great success. Kids, twentysomethings, boomers and even oldsters now hang out there. Additionally, the site offers thousands of applications to extend its functionality: mini software programs to, for instance, help you work collaboratively, or network more effectively. Facebook is on track to be the social networking platform. Bonus: Facebook just inked a deal with ABC news for expanded political coverage.

5) Photobucket

Complete monthly visitors: 25.5 million.
Headed up or down? Down.

Who would have guessed? Despite competing with established photo hosting sites like Flickr and Yahoo Photos, the straight-ahead Photobucket has grabbed the most traffic in this sector. It’s done so by offering a hosting service that encourages users to direct-link to their photos on Photobucket from other sites; tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of site owners have done so. Major bonus point: it also hosts video.

But over time it faces headwinds: however useful, Photobucket is more of a tool than a community; people are using it because it’s convenient, but someday someone will create a more multi-featured tool, and users will migrate. Community thrives; tools are merely used and discarded.

Continued: Flickr, Digg...Plus: Beyond User Generated: In the Year 2525

6) Craigslist

Complete monthly visitors: 23.9 million.
Headed up or down? Up.

Back before Web 2.0, before the dotcom crash, before even your grandma discovered email, there was Craigslist. And this success machine just keeps growing: local classifieds and forums for 450 cities worldwide, community moderated, generating 8 billion pageviews a month. That’s massive. The bare-bones site creates revenue from job listings; it claims to receive more than 1.5 million job listings a month. It’s a wonder more Net entrepreneurs haven’t more actively copied this model.

7) Flickr

Complete monthly visitors: 23.6 million.
Headed up or down? Up. The popular Flickr takes a more purely community-based approach than hosting sites like Photobucket: it’s all about people visiting the site and sharing photos with friends and family. The site has attained tremendous “mind share” – it’s the first place many people think of for sharing photos online. (Unless they want to post them on their own site, in which case they use Gallery.)

It’s this mindshare and sense of the communal that will allow Flickr to survive in a field crowded by the like of Kodak Gallery and Community Webshots. It’s a destination, which is the key to user-generated success.

8) IMDB

Complete monthly visitors: 17.7 million.
Headed up or down? Up.

All movies, all the time, the Internet Movie Database takes the best of both worlds: it combines quality content created by professionals – plot synopis, reviews, cast lists, and movie trailers – with an easy-to-use comment system for user-generated feedback. So we learn what the peanut gallery thinks but we also get accurate information. It would a gargantuan task to try and outdo IMDB. One of the site’s more interesting features is its list of the Top 250 movies of all time, rated by users of course.

9) Digg

Complete monthly visitors: 16.9 million.
Headed up or down? Up.

Who needs editors? The user votes (“Diggs”) on this site enable the entire Internet to vote for what news is most important. The “Digg This” icon attached to articles in online publications has become ubiquitous, as publishers pay homage to the Power of Digg. The ultimate sign that Digg has arrived: the Wall Street Journal recently announced it will add a “Digg This” icon to its moneyed pages. Wow.

A popular parlor game among the Internet chattering classes is discussing Digg acquisition rumors; the latest is that an unnamed media company is considering spending $300-400 million on Digg. Expect that number to levitate over time.

10) Topix

Complete monthly visitors: 4.5 million.
Headed up or down? Up

A news-based community, with user forums and polls, Topix takes a unique slant: it’s locally focused, so users in Portland, Maine argue and kvetch about different issues than users in Portland, Oregon. In a neat touch, the site’s “editors” (the minority of users who sign up for this unpaid job) help run the site. And you thought local newspapers might survive the Internet – nope.

Beyond User-Generated: in the Year 2525

While sites driven by users are the Web trend du jour, another trend is not so quietly growing: machine-driven content.

Google, of course, is in the forefront. The search giant’s Google News site, which aggregates a sprawling legion of news sources, is assembled without human help. The all-powerful Google spider crawls the Web, gobbling up headlines and presenting them on one well-organized page. Instead of an editor, it’s the Google algorithm that makes the choice, presumably based on some advanced form of Artificial Intelligence that the Google brainiacs have programmed in.

Actually, Google News is hedging its bet: rather than go all-machine, all the time, it has started an odd experiment: odd experiment by the people who are written about in the stories. It’s kind of a human-machine marriage – journalism without the expensive humans, but with unpaid humans adding content and value. It’s the evil genius of Google at its most revenue enhancing.

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