DeLicious is coming back
SAN MATEO, Calif. — Chad Hurley and Steve Chen have some experience with turning a small Web site into Internet gold. In 2006 they sold their scrappy start-up YouTube to Google for $1.65 billion.
More recently they picked an unlikely candidate to be their next Web sensation: a Yahoo castoff.
The men are trying to inject new life into Delicious, a social bookmarking service that, in its time, was popular among the technorati, but failed to catch on with a broader audience.
“What we plan to do,” Mr. Hurley said in an interview here last week, “is try to introduce Delicious to the rest of the world.”
Created in 2003, Delicious lets people save links from around the Web and organize them using a simple tagging system, assigning keywords like “neuroscience” or “recipes.” It was praised for the way it allowed easy sharing of those topical links. The site’s early popularity spurred Yahoo to snap it up in 2005 — but in the years after that Yahoo did little with it.
In December, leaked internal reports from Yahoo hinted that the company was planning to sell or shut down the service.
At the same time, Mr. Chen and Mr. Hurley, who had recently formed a new company called Avos and begun renting space a few blocks from the original YouTube offices in San Mateo, had been brainstorming ideas for their next venture. One problem they kept circling around was the struggle to keep from drowning in the flood of news, cool new sites and videos surging through their Twitter accounts and RSS feeds, a glut that makes it difficult to digest more than a sliver of that material in a given day.
“Twitter sees something like 200 million tweets a day, but I bet I can’t even read 1,000 a day,” Mr. Chen said. “There’s a waterfall of content that you’re missing out on.”
He added, “There are a lot of services trying to solve the information discovery problem, and no one has got it right yet.”
When the men heard about Yahoo’s plans to close Delicious, their ears perked up, and they placed a personal call to Jerry Yang, one of the founders of Yahoo, and made him an offer. (They declined to disclose financial details of the transaction.)
At heart, they say, the revamped service will still resemble the original Delicious when it opens to the public, which Mr. Chen and Mr. Hurley said would happen later this year. But their blueprint involves an overhaul of the site’s design and the software and the systems used to tag and organize links.
The current home page of Delicious features a simple cascade of blue links, the most recent pages bookmarked by its users, and it tends to largely be dominated technology news. But the new Delicious aims to be more of a destination, a place where users can go to see the most recent links shared around topical events, like the Texas wildfires or the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the gadget reviews and tech tips.
The home page would feature browseable “stacks,” or collections of related images, videos and links shared around topical events. The site would also make personalized recommendations for users, based on their sharing habits. “We want to simplify things visually, mainstream the product and make it easier for people to understand what they’re doing,” Mr. Hurley said.
Mr. Chen gives the example of trying to find information about how to repair a vintage car radio or plan an exotic vacation.
“You’re Googling around and have eight to 10 browser tabs of results, links to forums and message boards, all related to your search,” he said. The new Delicious, he said, provides “a very easy way to save those links in a collection that someone else can browse.”
They say they decided to buy Delicious rather than build their own service for a number of reasons.
“We know how hard it would be to build a brand,” Mr. Hurley said. “Delicious lets us hit the ground running with its existing footprint.”
A number of sites already have Delicious buttons as an option for sharing content — right alongside Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, Mr. Hurley said.
But Mr. Chen said the team also “liked the idea of saving one of the original Web 2.0 companies that started the social sharing movement on the Web.” He added: “There was some sense of history. We were genuinely sad that it would be shut down.”
Both founders acknowledge that they were never diehard Delicious users. “I signed up in 2005 and I didn’t use it again until 2011,” Mr. Chen said with an embarrassed laugh.
But Mr. Chen said it had become clear only in recent years how valuable such social data is — for personalization and to customize advertisements. Eventually the men plan to add such sharply focused advertising to the site.
Mr. Hurley and Mr. Chen’s biggest challenge may be persuading already-overloaded people to start using yet another service. But Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst at the Altimeter Group, which studies technology and advises companies on how to use it, said Web users who were tired of wading through silly links and other noise on Twitter and Facebook might be open to a better solution that helps them find more personalized and relevant articles, links and videos.
“It feels like there’s still an open opportunity to set a new precedent for social search,” Ms. Etlinger said.
Caterina Fake, who helped to found Flickr, the photo-sharing service, among other start-ups, recalled her initial awe of Delicious.
“It opened up the Internet in a way that was not remotely possible before,” she said. “You couldn’t stop surfing. It was infini-surf. You could be interested in a really arcane field of biology and find the five other people that shared that same interest and shared links on that topic.”
Ms. Fake said Delicious might attract a wider audience now that more people are accustomed to sharing links and information socially — something foreign to most people eight years ago.
“It didn’t quite get to the mainstream before,” she said, “but I’m optimistic that it can get there now.”
The ambitions of Delicious’s new owners make it sound as if they want to jump into the social networking turf war among Facebook, Twitter and Google — a curious challenge considering Mr. Chen was at Google until 2009 and Mr. Hurley stayed even longer, giving up his title as chief executive of YouTube in late 2010.
But they resist the notion that they are looking to compete with those companies.
“Google is still the utility for quickly finding things, like the capital of Texas,” Mr. Chen said. “But when people aren’t doing search for a simple question, we want to capture the results of that idea, that browsing, and showcase the results for the next guy.”
Before starting YouTube with Jawed Karim, Mr. Hurley and Mr. Chen were among the early employees at PayPal, which helped shape the way people pay for goods online. Now they are trying to cast the same spell on Silicon Valley that YouTube did. But they are remaining true to their start-up roots with a sparsely outfitted space that houses around 15 employees, mostly engineers.
Computer desks and a few Ikea couches dot the office’s single floor, which is decorated with a few Street Fighter III and Spinal Tap posters and two slim-neck guitars — Mr. Chen’s. A flimsy computer-printed sign taped to a window announces the company’s name. There’s no sign of the bubbly excesses of some young start-ups — there isn’t even a kitchen or a sink.
“We’re trying to stay focused,” Mr. Hurley said.
Delicious still attracts around half a million visitors a month, according to comScore. Some of the early users are still fiercely protective of the service. Mr. Chen and Mr. Hurley said they planned to invite the earliest users to test a version of the new site and solicit feedback about the designs and features.
“We didn’t buy it so we can kill it,” Mr. Hurley said. “Hopefully people will understand that.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 13, 2011