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Google Seeks to Restore Deja Functionality
by
Posted On May 14, 2001


When search engine portal company Google acquired Deja.com's archive of Usenet News postings, much of the functionality of the Deja site was lost [see http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=17652]. Since the February acquisition, Google has restored some of the lost searching functionality, and the company also says that by mid-May users of the Google Usenet index will have the ability to post new messages.

Google acquired certain "intellectual property" from Deja.com last February. At the time, numerous loyal Deja users were upset to lose this Web-based window into the world of Usenet. Deja, formerly DejaNews, provided a convenient way to browse and post Usenet messages without having to configure a news-reading client. It also provided a searchable archive of past Usenet postings that transformed Usenet from an ephemeral cocktail party into an ongoing archive of discussions on virtually every topic imaginable.

When financial trouble forced Deja to shut down its service, company officials approached Google to propose a deal to preserve the Deja archive. Google spokesperson David Krane describes the deal as a sort of rescue operation. "There are more reasons than fingers why we couldn't leave the Deja.com service running," he said. "When we were approached by Deja.com, we were not in a position to take over the servers or the service they offered. We are based on the West and East coasts; they were in Austin. Their servers were not part of the acquisition, nor was their software. We simply made a deal to acquire the content—the data and some domain names—and nothing else. It was Deja's decision when to shut down their service."

Krane says it has been a challenge to re-implement the lost functionality. "This really was a case of trying to fit a square-peg technology into a round hole. The data came to us in a wheelbarrow, and we had to put it into a format that gives the speed and relevancy that Google users expect. We've been trying to build a Usenet search capability that meshes with our world-class search capacity, and along with that, the ability to post."

Search capacities added since the acquisition include sorting the result set by date or relevance; searching specific newsgroups; and filtering by date, subject, newsgroup, author, or message ID. In essence, Google has incorporated more structure in its Groups search than is typically found in a free-form text search engine. The advanced Groups search appears at http://groups.google.com/advanced_group_search.

The user can also browse the complete archive, now covering the complete Deja corpus (with over 650 million messages dating back to 1995), by hierarchical navigation. Small bar graphs depict the amount of activity in each listed group or hierarchy, aiding the user in finding active discussions.

The MyDeja service, which allowed customized Usenet services and alerts along with free e-mail, is partially restored so that users may access their mailboxes. Google is not allowing new MyDeja signups, and plans to discontinue the service.

Former users of Deja.com were not shy about sharing their strong desires for restored functionality. Krane said, "We got lots of mail from the disgruntled: ‘Why can't I do this anymore?'" He noted that the company analyzed and sorted customer comments to decide what steps to take first. "The feature set we were aiming for was pretty obvious. It was the priorities that were set by the users."

A recent New York Times article questioned whether Google will exacerbate the problem of giving cocktail party chatter permanent status in a highly visible search engine—a problem introduced when DejaNews first launched. To address this concern, Google will, like Deja, honor the X-No-archive header on postings, and it will allow individuals to remove their old posts. Google also plans to introduce authentication into postings, verifying that posters are using a valid e-mail address.

Curiously, there isn't even a hyperlink from the main Google page to groups.google.com, which carries a label of "Beta," indicating the company does not yet regard it as a production service. I asked Krane if Google plans to tightly integrate searching, so that a Google Web search will offer Usenet items in the hit list—that would indeed raise the visibility of Usenet far beyond any level previously seen. Krane replied that "the whole range of options is open" as to what the integration might look like. Those who feel Usenet postings should not appear in the Google Web search might well want to make their feelings known to the company sooner rather than later.


Richard W. Wiggins is an author and speaker who specializes in Internet topics.  He is a senior information technologist at the computer center at Michigan State University.

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