Once, Netscape.com was a site where you could find something truly innovative: the Netscape browser. That was back in the days before Internet Explorer was bundled for free on every Windows machine, causing the commercial Netscape product to fall by the wayside. AOL bought up the cremains of the company, open-sourced the browser development in which it had little interest, and turned Netscape.com into another me-too portal site. As a portal, Netscape.com probably has its fans, but the site has little to offer that can’t be found elsewhere. Over the past year-and-a-half, traffic on Netscape.com has plummeted .
Naturally, AOL has given itself the task of turning Netscape.com around. Since actual innovation is difficult and more likely to be implemented by a company with nothing to lose, AOL has taken a glance at some of the hotter sites on the ‘Net, and focused its mighty Eye of Sauron on Digg.com.
Certainly, Slashdot deserves credit for popularizing the user-supplied news links idea that Netscape.com is hoping to make its own, but a side-by-side comparison between Digg and Netscape’s new beta site demonstrates that Digg.com has been chosen as the template for the redesign of the AOL-owned portal.
There are a few differences, of course. Where Digg and Slashdot target primarily the geek/tech community, Netscape.com plans to retain its appeal across all users and news categories. To that end, while the Digg site offers categories ranging from gaming to robots to movies, Netscape carries "channels" called "Do-it-yourself," "Politics," and "Sex." (Come to think of it, there may be a strong draw to the geek community on Netscape anyway.)
Additionally, the wild and wooly Digg concept of users voting stories to the top will be aped on Netscape, with additional limiting control provided by paid editorial staff known as anchors. The anchors will select interesting stories to be featured at the top of the page, and also fact-check user-provided links to items on other sites and publish their own commentary pieces.
Will it work? Well, Digg.com is certainly popular right now, and there’s something to be said for the concept of filtering popular news items to the top of any site. That’s a genuine feature of electronic media that print can’t hope to copy. There’s also something to be said for maintaining a level of editorial control, which can help keep important stories on the front page while eliminating dross with little or no credibility. Editorial control can be even more important in a portal aimed at the general public rather than a specific community, since without, it wouldn’t take much for a group of enthusiastic users to turn Netscape.com into "The Brangelina News" or "This Week on Lost."
If you can’t do something original, you might as well improve on someone else’s idea. That’s what AOL looks to be planning with Netscape. Time will tell if it proves popular enough to turn around the portal’s sagging fortunes, but one thing is certain: it’s already an improvement.