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Digg Makes a Comeback (Sort Of)

Inside the reincarnation of a former Web 2.0 phenomenon: One year after its redesign, Digg is back--but not the Digg former fans knew and loved.
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In its prime in early 2010, the social news-sharing website Digg drew more than 30 million unique visitors a month, prompting $200 million buyout talks with Google. But after those talks fell apart, so did Digg: Executives left, redesigns failed, and the site's rabid fans drifted to other corners of the Internet. In June 2012, start-up incubator Betaworks decided to scoop up the brand for $500,000 and promised to return the site to its former glory. Here's the story of the redesign that relaunched Digg--or at least the website that bears that name. 

Too Much Crowd, Not Enough Wisdom

Digg was started in 2004 with the goal of democratizing the news. Users (rather than editors) would "dig up" the most interesting and talked-about stories on the Web. Readers could then click on a Digg button to vote for the ones they liked; the stories with the most diggs landed on the site's front page. It quickly became one of the hottest examples of the then-new Web 2.0 concept of crowdsourcing.

But by the time Betaworks acquired Digg, the crowd--what was left of it--was unhappy. A poll revealed that 92 percent of remaining users would not recommend the site to friends. The Web's abundant postmortem analyses on Digg's demise made it clear that too many redesigns and too much mainstream news put users off.

The Betaworks team had its own theory--that giving users the power to run Digg also helped drive it into the ground. Spammers gamed the system by artificially inflating the diggs of a story. That brought stories of ever-poorer quality to the top, says Justin Van Slembrouck, design director for what became the new Digg. The comments on the site also became more mean-spirited, adds current Digg CEO Andrew McLaughlin. On top of it, Web dynamics had shifted dramatically since Digg's moment in the sun. Now most news conversations and sharing happen on Facebook and Twitter.

Hey, We Can Fix That

Betaworks saw a huge opportunity. The team knew how to create software fast--it had built nine companies in five years, including social-media properties Bitly and TweetDeck and personalized news service News.me, and invested in 72 others. It already had plans to build a social-news site down the road. But Betaworks didn't have a brand. Digg did--plus 11 million email addresses and one million Twitter followers.

"You don't get many opportunities to revive a dying tech brand," says Michael Young, founder of News.me and now Digg's CTO.

The only problem was, the team had just six weeks to do it. That's when Digg's data center contract expired. Taking over the $200,000-plus monthly tab didn't make sense. Instead, Betaworks would build an entirely new site and house it on the cloud via Amazon stacks. Doing it fast meant designing a simple site. "That's easier said than done," says Van Slembrouck.

The Not-So-Simple Plan

After Betaworks officially acquired the brand, the new team reached out to Digg's founder, Kevin Rose, and early investor David Sze for their blessing. Initially, the two wanted to make sure Betaworks preserved Digg's original mission. "But once we knew [Betaworks CEO John Borthwick] felt that same passion, we said, 'Make it yours. You need to do what you need to do,' " says Sze, now a partner at Greylock Partners, a Silicon Valley VC firm.

The team sketched out an ambitious plan. When Van Slembrouck looked at Digg, he saw a cluttered, messy, and overwhelming site. The new site needed to be the opposite--simple and visual, with lots of photos. Most important--and perhaps counterintuitive--the team decided to throw out the old crowdsourcing model of identifying top stories.

Digg would no longer rely on, well, diggs. The team instead would look at what people liked on Facebook and retweeted on Twitter. That social-media data was Betaworks's sweet spot, because its apps like Bitly and News.me told them what people were viewing online.

Armed with that data, the new Digg would come alive and change constantly. It could even be hyper-personalized according to readers' social network news feeds.

Plan B (and C)

It turns out some of those ideas worked far better on paper than they did in reality. The team wouldn't be able to get the data fast enough for the site to update on the fly with Facebook likes and tweets. A personalized Digg? Not enough time and too ambitious.

About three weeks to deadline, the team saw an even bigger flaw in the plan: Data alone would never suffice. "The design was very smart, but it lacked a voice," Borthwick says. The new Digg needed a personality, which meant it needed humans to sift through the stories to make sure the right stuff rose to the top.

A few days later, David Weiner, formerly an editor at The Huffington Post, became the site's editorial director. Digg, Weiner declared, needed a voice with sass. "You can't get away with having a voiceless, soulless repository of information," he says. "I wanted it to feel like you were reading along with someone you liked and wanted to get a beer with."

Weiner hired three more editors and a fourth postlaunch. Using their own editorial judgment as well as social-media data, the editors would decide which tech stories, weird human-interest pieces, and scientific oddities would grace the homepage.

In the final two weeks before launch, the team whittled the site's scopefrom numerous webpages with several sections to a single page.

Wait. This Is Digg?

The day of the launch, July 31, more than half a million people checked out the new Digg. They submitted 50,000 story links. So, was it a success? Depends on whom you're asking and what you're measuring.

Third-party analytics firm Alexa reported that page views dropped significantly following the redesign. McLaughlin says that was to be expected: Digg went from a website of millions of pages created over the years to essentially a one-page site.

"We'll keep trying to build and improve to appeal to as broad an audience as we can. But it's definitely not for everyone."--Andrew McLaughlin, Digg CEO

In February 2013, the site delivered more than one million referrals to BuzzFeed's publisher network of some 200 media sites--more than double the number it did prior to the relaunch. Referrals, McLaughlin says, are a much more relevant gauge of the redesign's success.

Digg, it seemed, was back--but not the Digg diehard fans knew and loved.

Critics saw a redesign that threw out everything that had made Digg unique. Former users complained vehemently on Digg's blog about the absence of comments, which had been the heart of the online community. And where was the breadth of stories that the average reader used to dig up? The homepage was full of mainstreamnews sources.

"What a self-delusion joke you've played on yourselves, Shame. Moving on, used to love this site when it was informative and useful," wrote one commenter.

McLaughlin isn't surprised. "It's totally expected that some people will hate it," he says. "We'll keep trying to build and improve to appeal to as broad an audience as we can. But it's definitely not for everyone."

The question remains, Who is the new Digg for? And what is it, exactly?

Plan, Um, D?

Betaworks's latest project offers an answer. For the past three months, the team has been racing to build a replacement for the news aggregator Google Reader, which was scheduled to shut down on July 1.

The Digg Reader app, which will be integrated into Digg.com, will let readers follow their favorite news feeds. The move will complete the identity overhaul of the Digg brand. The messy, sometimes raucous online community that used to be Digg is dead; in its place is a clean and simple news app, brought to you by a staff of editors.

Given Digg's history of alienating users with redesigns, Betaworks's strategy of keeping the logo and rethinking everything else was bold. Then again, the old Digg had failed, and users were disgruntled. Why follow the wisdom of the crowd if most of the crowd has moved on?

From the July/August 2013 issue of Inc. magazine




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