I’ll admit it. I don’t really get what’s so compelling about the Del.icio.us shared bookmark service that has some of my colleagues raving and acting as evangelists for the company. Rather than live in ignorance, however, I decided to ask a few fans for their perspective, and am pleased that three true experts stepped forward.
I sent the same questions to Jeremy Zawodny (well-known member of the Yahoo! team and author of the interesting Zawodny’s Blog), Stuart Maxwell (who is busy building The Louveture Project and running Seattle Real Estate Talk), and Jeff Barr (Web services evangelist at Amazon.com and founder of Syndic8.com, an RSS aggregation service).
Q: What IS Del.icio.us, and why is it so popular with some people in the blogging world while others have no idea what it is and how it works?
Delicious is a service for saving and sharing bookmarks. It’s popular in the blog world because a lot of bloggers are information hounds that collect hundreds of links to interesting web sites. Delicious makes it easy to put them all in once place. Bloggers also like to publish links for their friends and readers to see, so there are a lot of tools for making that easy too.
Delicious is, basically, a social bookmarking service. In a nutshell, that means that Delicious stores lists of bookmarks for me and tens of thousands of my closest friends, and we all get to see and search through each other’s lists. Let me try to explain why this is so cool.
Delicious has several advantages over browser-based bookmarks. First, all my Delicious bookmarks are taggable, meaning that, rather than having to choose just one folder in which to store a bookmark, I can assign each bookmark with as many unique keywords as I like. I can also attach a short note to each bookmark, giving me more context and reminders for why I wanted to save that particular URL.
Second, Delicious bookmarks are searchable. A search for “rss” will turn up results from my tags, descriptions (notes), and titles. I can also view my bookmarks by tag, and I can chain multiple tags together to narrow my search. So, for example, if I enter the URL: http://del.icio.us/stumax/blog+tech, I get a list of all the tech-related blogs that I’ve saved on the site.
Third, Delicious bookmarks are easily accessed in multiple ways through any browser or RSS reader. I work on multiple OSes throughout my day, so having access to my bookmarks at any time through the Delicious website is a godsend for me.
RSS is also well implemented throughout the site, so my Delicious list becomes a handy way to communicate. For instance, I’m currently working on a project with a friend in another state, so when I come across an article or website that I think he should read, I bookmark it with Delicious, add a unique tag that we’ve agreed on, and the new URL will show up in his RSS reader. Likewise, I can tell whenever he’s bookmarked something with the same tag. We could just email these links to each other, of course, but once we add more people to the project, email becomes more of a hassle.
So, all this gives me some pretty powerful tools for creating my own private web directory. And when you add in the social aspects of Delicious, you’ve really got an amazing alternative to a traditional search engine. Because not only can I search and subscribe to my bookmarks, I can search and subscribe to anyone else’s bookmarks, either individually or en masse to the whole Delicious community.
So, for example, I might, as I did the other night, start poking around for good travel sites and find a Delicious user with a rich list of travel-related bookmarks. I get the benefit of that person’s insight and knowledge. They’ve culled the web for me and and can point me to a vetted, high-quality list of URLs, thus saving me the effort of wading through a spam-filled Google search for the kind of information I really want. (Not to knock Google, which I love and rely on, but some searches these days are impossibly cluttered. Delicious helps deal with some of that.)
So, to get back to your question, why is it so popular with some bloggers and unused by others? Well, Delicious has some features that add value to a blog, like easy linkrolls, Delicious tag clouds, and so on. Also, there are the social benefits I’ve outlined above. Some people even use their Delicious link list as their blog, using the notes field to add extended commentary.
I think, though, that the value of Delicious isn’t obvious to everyone, especially people who tend to use one platform or browser exclusively. It didn’t help that the help pages that were available a year ago weren’t terribly thorough (that’s being remedied now). Moreover, not everyone may be comfortable with creating a public list of links. And there is the drawback that (for now, at least) you don’t have the option of adding private bookmarks. I do have to maintain a separate list of links to things like my domain admin login pages, for example. Hey, I don’t want to share everything.
Del.icio.us allows users to associate short names, also known as tags, with URLs. The site can be browsed by tag; it is very easy to see all of the posts tagged with “css”, “politics”, and so forth. The tags form a categorization system, but this one is different than most others, since there is no central designer and no sense of right and wrong. The users effectively vote on the utility of each tag by deciding to use it in the same way that others do.
Del.icio.us can be approach on several levels and I believe that this is key to its success. Here are the levels as I see them:
1 – Users can go to the site and see the most recent and most popular items. This is the way that most people get started. Along the way they can’t help but learn a little bit about the fact that the site uses tags to organize the items inside.
2 – Users decide to participate, and use the site to store and share their bookmarks. To do this they also have to start tagging their posts.
3 – Users start to retrieve by tag, retrieving items under their own tags and under the tags left by others, to stay abreast of a topical area.
There’s a mental tipping point that comes into play here. At first people are rightfully skeptical of the entire tagging process, especially those with any familiarity or experience with the development of ontologies. The first thought is “this can’t possibly work. We worked for years to design an ontology for System X and it still wasn’t quite right.” After a while people see that the tagging
model can and does actually work, and that it produces useful results even though no one is in charge.
Q: How long have you been using delicious, and how often on any given week do you access the site or site data?
I’ve been using it for about a year now. My first bookmark was in November of 2004. But I was browsing del.icio.us for a few months before I finally got on board as a user. I probably post 5-15 links a week and visit the site a few times a day, usually to see the “popular” page which showcases the sites that have been getting bookmarked the most recently.
I’ve been using the site since last September, and I use it every day. (I had to double-check; my first bookmark was SubEthaEdit) on September 16, 2004. Tagged with: collaboration, group, mac, software, text.) I have 1,012 bookmarks.
I’ve been on there for longer than I can remember, early 2004 at least (I joined the mailing list back then, and I wouldn’t have done so before I was actually using the site). I check the front page several times per day and I add a new bookmark once or twice per day.
One interesting use case I have for tagging is that I often need to point people at a collection of documents on some subject. Changes are that this subject is well represented in the tags, so I simply send out del.icio.us URLs, rather than pointers to individual items.
Q: My understanding is that at a fairly basic level, delicious is a shared bookmark service. If your Web browsers could automatically sync with each other, office and home, laptop and PDA, would you still be interested in delicious?
Yes, I’d still use del.icio.us. I put very few bookmarks in my browser. It’s much easier to have them on-line where I can get to them from any computer, even one I’m borrowing for a few minutes in a foreign country. Plus, it’s nice that my friends (or anyone else who cares) can find them too.
If a year ago my browsers had been capable of syncing with each other, I probably wouldn’t have tried Delicious. However, I would have missed out on the powerful features that make it such a useful service to me. I don’t think at this point that simple syncing of bookmarks would be compelling enough for me to consider leaving the service.
This is true, but the sharing cuts across users, and automatic sync of my own bookmarks wouldn’t address this part of the functionality.
Q: There are other bookmark and voting sites out there, notably digg. What makes delicious compelling to you?
I’ve been watching digg a lot recently. It’s an interesting cross between Slashdot and del.icio.us and has become incredibly popular. I check it at least as often as del.icio.us, every day.
But del.icio.us is compelling to me and others for the same reason the Flickr is. You can get a lot out of the system by simply using it for yourself. However, there’s a lot more “social infrastructure” there if you want to tap into it. In del.icio.us you can see what other people think is popular, which tags, they use, etc.
Like all good web services, Delicious is elegantly simple, truly useful, and subtly powerful. It doesn’t try to do too much, and it delivers its core service — bookmarking — reliably and well. The Delicious API has made possible dozens of tools for extending the service, adding even greater utility (here’s a big list).
Delicious also gives me something of value that I can take with me. I can download my links and leave the service at any time. That kind of freedom is hard to find elsewhere, and it buys a considerable amount of loyalty from me.
The site is clean, simple, and fast; the tagging model is self-evident, and it gets a little bit better every day.
As a representive of Yahoo!, Jeremy also consented to another question that I couldn’t resist asking…
Q: And so, is Yahoo interested in buying delicious and integrating it into the Yahoo offerings?
Ha! Why don’t I just fax you the list of companies we might acquire?
Seriously though, I couldn’t comment on that even if I knew the answer. All I can say is that we’re always keeping an eye out for the Next Big Thing that someone might build outside of Yahoo.
Thank you three for your insight and thoughts on delicious. I have a feeling that in sixty days I’ll have become a convert too, you collectively present a very compelling case.
There are still people who are much more skeptical about Delicious and bookmarking services in general, however, so I’d invite you to share your reaction and skeptcisim here in the comments so we can engage in a thoughtful discussion about this class of services!