I have to admit I was skeptical of MyWeb when I first saw it. Well, let’s face it: the 1.0 version was dreadful. Bad in every way — it is better if we never speak of it. And the whole MyWeb concept struck me at first as creepy — do you really want your friends’ friends to see what you’re reading? But MyWeb 2.0 has snuck up on me over time, and now I think it’s the greatest thing since hot buttered toast.
MyWeb is unusually conceptual, and therefore hard to explain in five words or less. When forced to do so, as in James Fallows’ article a couple weeks ago, the Yahoos tend to default to the term “social search” — which sounds good but means nothing to most people. It’s too bad that Team Y! can’t find just the right way to explain it, because the product actually has three major aspects which correspond to (and clearly exceed) some of the hottest startups on the web right now.
First and foremost, MyWeb is a personal server-side bookmark-saving-and-tagging system à la Del.icio.us. Why is this good? Because saving bookmarks in your browser is retarded and always has been. It’s not webby, it’s not portable, it’s a single-purpose UI, and any UI with folders is dead in the face of tagging anyway.
I used the web for like 10 years without ever bookmarking — I just never saw the point when search was so good. What MyWeb has made me realize is that the meat of the web now is information-dense pages that don’t change very often, and that is precisely the competitive advantage of bookmarking over searching. For saving your personal bookmarks, MyWeb is clearly better than Del.icio.us because it’s not just a pointer — you can also save a cached copy. Here’s an example: I had seen a particular drink recipe a few months back, but it turned out to be fiendishly hard to find by searching because it had very common ingredients. More recently the owner of the site pulled all the content in a ploy to sell the property — but with my cached copy in MyWeb, I’m laughing all the way to the wet bar.
MyWeb is also a way to find out what tout le monde is reading, somewhat the same problem-space as Digg. My friends usually send me that stuff via IM anyway, or I pick it up off their blogs — and in general I’m not entirely convinced that “finding fresh new stuff to read all the time” is a problem real people (as opposed to VCs) have — but if you’re bored at work, MyWeb can help you out with the socialnetwork-filtered linkstream. This aspect of MyWeb is the weakest right now, but I suspect it will be getting better.
And then finally MyWeb is a human-powered search engine in the Wink mode. But again, here’s the key: it’s already integrated into my normal search engine (Yahoo Web Search, of course :-)). Any normal web search will also check the MyWeb corpus and bubble those results up. So far MyWeb results are excellent in quality and freshness, a bit shaky in relevance — but there aren’t that many documents in the index yet and I don’t know that the A team is doing the relevance work on that product.
One of the strangest things about MyWeb, and possibly the reason it hasn’t caught the imagination yet, is that the three functions I mention above — personal server-side bookmarking, socialnetwork-filtered linkstream, and human-powered search engine — use what amounts to three different UIs, two of which are unattractive and/or hard to use. The main MyWeb page brings up the linkstream; the “MyWeb/myweb” page accesses your personal bookmarks; and as I mention, MyWeb search results are brilliantly integrated into normal Yahoo web searches. The three UIs are boring and unattractive in three divergent ways, and god knows MyWeb could use some Ajax love — who requires a separate page to tag something anymore, for fuck’s sake? Then there’s the whole question of Yahoo 360 integration and “inviting” people into your MyWeb network, which I’m sure have accounted for endless soul-sucking product meetings over in Building B.
Since I got religion about it, I find myself evaluating a lot of the new startups I see by whether they can take on the juggernaut that Yahoo MyWeb could be. One of the most intriguing things about the product is that it’s considerably ahead of the kind of mass-market demand that Yahoo meets best. In fact, only a tiny number of users has ever heard of Del.icio.us, Digg, or Wink, much less are pushing Yahoo for a better-integrated alternative to those sites. It’s also worth noting that this product was developed completely in-house, without any acquisitions… and let’s face it, Yahoo won’t be acquiring any of these competing startups now, so they’ll need to compete head-to-head in the marketplace while being down 160 million users from jump. Should be fun to see whether Caterina et al can make their product comprehensible and usable to the masses before the competing startups — not to mention Google, MSN, and AOL — can even get out of the gate.