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Is The Web Honeymoon Almost Over?

The “honeymoon” is the initial period during which much is forgiven. The situation is new, overreaction is dangerous, and a decision was already made to “try it and see how it goes“. You aren’t usually thrust into a honeymoon — you decide to go there: you manage the risk. The web, from an SEO perspective, has been one big honeymoon. Is the honeymoon almost over?

There are many indications that the honeymoon for webmarketers has been fabulous but is finite, and it may be time to start planning the return to reality. Competition is heating up, and as I suggested in “Here Come The Domainers“, there is plenty of room topside for more competition. Post-deregulation domain prices are correcting, as the secondary market takes hold. SEO services are still hawked as “task packages” even though SEO is a process, but buyers are getting smarter. We have one search engine, and that entity has taken over almost half of the online advertising market it helped create. As Google exerts some of that power, we’re going to enjoy fewer freedoms.

One of the big areas to watch is the web development space. Most immediately, I’m seeing domainers stepping into development, and they have a lot to learn. Web development has advanced well beyond the HTML and CSS of domainer world, with frameworks and platforms evolving at breakneck speed behind the scenes. As is the case in SEO, what you read on the web does not represent state of the art or even close. Open source CMSs may look good, but they represent nothing more than a framework to adopt, often without adequate best-practice nor robust community support. Popular support is not the same as robust support. If you don’t believe me, ask how many opensource CMS adopters have read the roadmaps for the apps they adopted. Ask how many of those roadmaps acknowledge a “complete re-write” is in the near future. Too many. Can you afford to adopt a framework that is scheduled for a complete rewrite? Think of the developers… are they concerned with the current release or even the nightlies, or are they focused on the next great re-write?

I doubt very much the venture and private equity groups forming around domain portfolios are ready to swallow the salaries demanded by the capable PHP, database, and web app dev people (if they could even get heir attention). Those of us involved in web technologies have encountered those problems for years now. A hundred grand doesn’t attract who you need any more. Do domainers have the stomach to carry high-salaried technologists who are more capable of chasing the same opportunities as a technologist that they are chasing as a business? Equity is not interesting to most of the really capable people, and when equity does motivate, I find the guy evaluating the equity opportunity knows more about the web and web development than the founders, their investors, or the leads on the venture. Honestly, they are not looking so much at the equity offer, but the likelihood of their taking over the entire project or a significant portion down the road due to their virtual control over it. That does happen, just as it happens with the IP lawyers and financiers. To really succeed on the web today you need more than youthful passion and obligation-free creativity. You need wisdom, and like the really good diamonds on display in the jewelry store, wisdom’s price tag “ask for price”.

A long time ago when the web started guys like me questioned everything. It was stupid to do this, stupid to rely on that, stupid to trust this or that. But the web was in the honeymoon period, and we simply had to trust. Forget about 20 years of software business experience, we had to make progress. Client server taught us very little, because we had to have faith in the web. Now, as the honeymoon shows its age, the risks are showing more clearly. We’re seeing javascript loaded across domains, slowing down page loads sometimes at the cost of visitors, and skewing stats. We’re seeing services unable to keep up, yet still relatively unaccountable to their customers. Just yesterday an obscure blogger Earlier this month Aaron Wall wrote this:

A few weeks back I made a post about the book being a dying format, and in that post I have a Google book snippet. Within a week that snippet was broken. I had a Google CPA ad integrated into one of my major websites and the ad went away, breaking 10% of a large site and making it look like spam. Even some of the services that are not broke will likely be drastically different in a few years. Google maps is really open because they need marketshare, but after they become the clear market leader will they stay fairly open? How long until we have ads in everything? A good webmaster service that would be exceptionally useful is something that scours websites and looks for broken stuff.

Trusting Google for part of your page content and user experience? What does Google care if it fails to perform? Google maps has one of the most risky terms of service of any out there, yet young technologists forged ahead developing apps around it. They had to. But not to secure a defensible business. They did it to secure their tech positions. Now what will they do? Pitch you on developing Google maps applications using their leet skills? Are you prepared to evaluate and manage the risk associated with that Google Terms of Service which allows Google to shut you down at any time, for any reason, with no warning? the recent acquisiton of Navtech by Nokia should shake some boots. What happens to Google maps now? Or perhaps more clairvoyantly, when will Google acquire Nokia to secure navteq *and* the Gphone? Maybe it doesn’t matter for your gardening website, but if you’re Zillow, or an online yellow pages, this is quite significant.

There are plenty of signs. If you were registering domains back when they were $150 each you probably remember how stupid it seemed to pick the “authentication via email” option at the registrar. You were warned in great detail that email-based-auth was not secure, very risky, and should not be selected. Yet, what other choice did we have? It was far to difficult to manage public/private key encryption back then, and other alternatives we risky for other reasons. So in the end, virtually everyone accepted email-based-auth as the gold standard for domain registrations. And now? Because the whole system is based on an insecure protocol (email based authentication), criminals are stealing domains. The honeymoon that granted us freedom to actually choose a known-to-be-insecure option simply out of convenience, is coming to a close.
I think the honeymoon is almost over, but I also think we’re in for a wave of profit taking by the web technology people. Investors, builders, web real estate developers, and even consumers will yield to the technologists as they advance the underlying web infrastructure beyond even the rather complex levels it is at now, to levels well out of reach of most current web publishers. Innovation will get more and more expensive, and as the rest follow each other under Google’s umbrella, that innovation will yield more and more significant dividends.

Call it a bubble or call it a gold rush or a wave or trend, but the risk is increasing with that growth. Remember the old story about the guy who moved to San Francisco in 1849 to sell shovels? As we notice the new web business model evolving around a few core infrastructure players, and everyone shouts “ignore the little man behind the curtain“, who dares be Dorothy?


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3 Responses to “Is The Web Honeymoon Almost Over?”

  1. Marcel Feenstra Says:

    John:

    The “obscure blogger” that you are quoting seems to copy most of his/her content from Aaron Wall’s SEOBook blog –the text you quote is actually from a post Aaron made on October 1st “The Next Break in the Web“.

    John replies: Yes, thanks.  I added the link. Maybe you recognize why I called it an “obscure blogger”… hard to say who publishes it, isn’t it?

  2. David G from Zillow.com Says:

    Hi John, it’s David from Zillow.

    Luckily we don’t use Google Maps :-)

  3. john andrews Says:

    @David, but you do use Navteq right? I’m sure you’ve got your business risks managed (LOL) but in the emerging web tech space we sometimes have no choice but rely on unmanaged risks like that, and at some point the questions get asked.