Web Definitions You Need to Succeed – Part I

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You do not want a ‘Web 2.0′ site. Web 2.0 is a near-useless term, because there are no clear lines to show where the web has changed. But clearly, it has changed, and with the proliferation of new site concepts and the technologies that enable them, there are more uses for a web site than ever. As businesses start to turn to their IT departments and say, “We want our website to be Web 2.0,” I can only watch and laugh as the same mistakes made in the 1990s are repeated, when businesses didn’t have an IT department or a website, but they saw other businesses did and they wanted one too… even if they didn’t know why.

I hope entrepreneurs and business managers alike will benefit from the definitions I’ll provide over the course of a three-post series. I’ve been thinking about why some sites succeed and some sites fail, and what it ultimately comes down to is understanding the purpose behind the site. A website is more than a feature list, and two sites with the same features can have radically different purposes and outcomes. I’ve created the definitions below to help understand the purpose behind a site and give us a framework for discussing it, which is increasingly important as new businesses look to start, and old businesses look to reinvent themselves.

The Three Thirds of the Web

There are many types of sites, which I’ve narrowed down to the nine most common, and grouped into three broad categories. While many websites are multi-purposed, they tend to be focused in at least one specific category, if not one specific type. A destination site is a site people go to because they know it has things they like. These are the sites we visit every day, the sites we use as start pages, sites that always have fresh content or interesting people. This is different from a presence site, which tends to be more static; people go to a presence site because they’re looking for something specific. And a service site’s traffic comes from people who want to do something.

Destination Websites

Like your favorite restaurant, theatre, or vacation city, these sites want to be the ones you go to every time. They’re original, entertaining, or informative, and they’re probably the most successful because of it. The three types of destination sites I’ve identified are content sites, community sites, and aggregation sites.

Content Sites are sources of original content, whether that content is informative, entertaining, or both. Both CNN.com and many political blogs are content sites. While the focus of content sites is on the content, the most important aspect of a content site are the creators. While YouTube is partially a content site, its success has primarily come from its acquisition by Google, giving it a role in part of a larger strategy that is very different from what it might have been on its own.

Unacquired video sites like Metacafe and Revver are better examples of content sites, due to their focus on original content, and thus, the creators, which manifests in the form of better revenue-sharing options than YouTube offers. Creators of successful content sites cannot indulge a “build it and they will come” philosophy. They must recognize that they are competing for content creators, and offer the best rewards and assistance to those creators that they’re able to. Professional content sites like the NYTimes.com, Gawker, etc. compete in traditional ways(salaries, insurance benefits, reputation) for hired employees. Sites that harness user-generated content must compete for the best content creators by providing them with the best tools, visibility, revenue-sharing options, advice, and other benefits.

Aggregation Sites collect and present content from a larger number of small content sites, saving their audience the time of searching through many different places. Or they cull the best quality(in theory) or most popular content from content sites large and small. An aggregation’s sites most important features are the methods of presentation and quality control options. Aggregation sites can be editor-controlled, user-controlled, algorithm-controlled, or a mix of those methods.

One of the biggest problems afflicting aggregation sites is filtering out spam, commercial interests, and stolen content. While many would consider aggregation sites to be an over-saturated market, filled with clones and spinoffs of the most popular sites, there are many areas where improvements could be made. Many aggregation sites attempt to build a community for discussion and adding value to collected content, yet the quality controls for user additions are rarely as rigorous as those for the content themselves. And most aggregation sites have yet to aggregate user additions to the content they collect and present.

And while designers have had the past decade to find the best ways to arrange lists of hyperlinks, web designers have barely scratched the surface of ways to display large collections of video, images, or audio. Adult content sites have years of experience in this area, and though some might find it distasteful, it’s likely that as has been done for years before, mainstream sites will popularize the innovations made in the adult industry.

Community Sites were around long before today’s fad of social networking services. Bulletin board systems, forums, chat rooms, and other interaction utilities were some of the most hyped features of the web before the media discovered ‘e-commerce’. Almost any site with a large amount of returning visitors could benefit from social features, but only site owners willing to nurture and maintain (not just moderate) the community will actually do so.

Although forums and discussion-oriented community sites are still common, many modern community sites revolve around what Jaiku founder Jyri Engeström termed “social objects”, like music, pictures, products, movies, etc. In other words, today’s sites with community features have to do more than give people a place to talk, they must give them interesting things to talk about as well. I’ll write more about best practices for building social networking sites in a later post.

Next time, on Social Strategist…

Next I’ll cover the different types of presence sites, and conclude with service sites. The distinctions between these types of sites are rarely absolute, but while features of several often combine, the nuances of each are important when determining the success or failure of a site. Make sure you’re subscribed to see the next two parts of this series!

Update 09/22/07: Part II – Presence Sites now available.