On February 12, 2001, search engine company Google acquired the online discussion service Deja.com. The companies did not disclose financial terms. Deja.com was launched in 1995 as DejaNews.com and offered a Web front end to the vast content-distribution network known as Usenet. The new Google window into Usenet is known as groups.google.com.
Universities and UNIX provided the milieu in which Usenet was born. In 1979, graduate students at Duke and at the University of North Carolina concocted a scheme for exchanging information among UNIX aficionados using the "UNIX to UNIX Copy Protocol." UNIX evolved into a global discussion medium whose content was shared over the Internet using NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol). Usenet evolved to support millions of users via thousands of news servers worldwide. Today, Usenet "newsgroups," such as rec.photo or comp.risks, carry thousands of postings and gigabytes of content (much of it encoded multimedia) each day.
DejaNews revolutionized the nature of Usenet. First, it offered a Web-based view of Usenet. Although Web browsers dating back to Mosaic include the ability to read and post on Usenet, many users never explored those features. DejaNews' Web interface exposed Usenet to millions of Web users; in fact, many new users thought that DejaNews was Usenet.
Furthermore, prior to DejaNews, most participants in Usenet discussions thought of their postings as ephemeral. The thousands of distributed Usenet News servers at universities, ISPs, and companies usually archived newsgroup material for no longer than a week or two. Over time, DejaNews built an archive of Usenet postings that lent a sense of permanence.
Equally important, DejaNews provided a searchable index of Usenet. The index made it possible to find which newsgroups carried current discussions on which topics. Someone researching a topic such as digital cameras would search DejaNews first, find newsgroups with current discussions on the topic, and then post questions or comments.
All that began to change in 1999, when DejaNews executives attempted to cash in on the e-commerce explosion. They renamed the service "Deja.com" and shifted its focus to a product ratings service. While still offering a front end to conventional Usenet newsgroups, Deja presented an initial view of product-oriented discussions. Worse, it eliminated archived content for earlier years. Deja fans protested bitterly.
As for the Google takeover, Deja's rich structured-searching functionality was lost, replaced by Google's much simpler interface. Google admitted the shortcomings of its search interface, while attempting to emphasize the positive: "The current beta service available on this site lacks browsing, posting, and many other important features. We are working hard to provide these. Due to the logistical and financial constraints of the Deja service, there was no viable way to keep the service going. Now that the Usenet data has been safely archived, we are focusing our efforts on implementing these important features. Please bear with us during this transition."
This week's news brought more bitter protests. Negative postings began appearing, appropriately enough, on alt.fans.dejanews. Many asked why the existing servers at Deja.com couldn't have been maintained, even in frozen form, while Google attempts to rebuild the service internally.
Others took their case to other forums. One old-time Usenet hand posted a letter of complaint to various media outlets under the name "Deja Refugee." He observed: "A prime principle of Usenet is, ‘Before you post a question, first see if it's already been answered in a prior post.' But now that Google has made all but the most recent content inaccessible, older answers are available only by using cumbersome search alternatives (and even then, only for selected newsgroups which have maintained rich non-Deja archives)."
"Deja Refugee," who requested anonymity in order to protect professional relationships, also noted the link-rot effect of the abrupt switchover: "As of February 12, all the major search engines, including Google—and some Web sites of Google's own search engine customers—now have THOUSANDS OF INDEXED WEB PAGES WITH LINKS GOOGLE HAS BROKEN—links to Deja articles which no longer work. For that matter, many of Deja's postings themselves contain links (also presumably now broken) to other postings. In other words, Google has instantaneously devalued the content it acquired."
Search engine experts also took note. Greg R. Notess commented on searchengineshowdown.com: "The database is considerably smaller and the search features much less powerful than we had on Deja last week."
Google was able to ameliorate the "Error 404 effect" by trapping requests for Deja.com content and redirecting the user to the new Google/Deja splash screen. (Ironically, when news reports surfaced in January that a particular epithet pointed to a George W. Bush site, Google declined to hard-code a fix to the hit list.) Users of other search engines, or users with bookmarks containing deep links to Deja-archived discussions, find their links are broken.
There were signs of Deja's impending demise. In 2000, Half.com, an eBay subsidiary, bought the product ratings functionality of Deja, and hired a number of Deja programmers. Anyone who tracked Deja's financials over the years might have expected failure. Hoover's reported its revenue at $100,000 in 1995 and $8 million in 1999, with negative net income for each year following a similar curve. At the same time, its employee count grew from eight in 1995 to 100 in 1999. A 1999 attempt at a $57 million IPO flopped.
"Deja Refugee" concludes, "Google's actions display arrogance and contemptuous disregard for (or shocking ignorance of) the needs and wishes of the computing community." Such bitter protests will certainly continue, even as Google attempts to restore search functionality. No doubt Google executives wonder how protesters would have reacted if no one had bought Deja.com assets, and the site had simply gone dark. Lovers of Usenet can take some comfort at least in the preservation of the backfile archive.
Already, the year 2001 has brought the demise of Go.com and a restructuring of AltaVista. Deja's story is one more reminder that the utopian days of the Net are gone, and that if a service doesn't have a viable means of financial support, users are unwise to assume its permanent presence.