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Why Technorati is Not Usable

Illustration: Four dimensions of usability

I was going to write about performance and availability today, but this was not the post I had in mind. Technorati sidetracked me. So I'm going to write about Usability instead. Because Technorati provides a good counter-example -- how not to build a usable Web application that satisfies and retains customers.

In Web Usability: A Simple Framework, I described a way to think about Web site or Web application usability.

In a second post, The Dimensions of Usability, I presented the graphic shown here, and discussed the four dimensions in a bit more detail.

These four dimensions are not alternative functional goals, to be weighed against one another and prioritized. Web application effectiveness is a four-step challenge:

To satisfy customers, a Web site must fulfill four distinct needs:

  • Availability: A site that's unreachable, for any reason, is useless.
  • Responsiveness: Having reached the site, pages that download slowly are likely to drive customers to try an alternate site.
  • Clarity: If the site is sufficiently responsive to keep the customer's attention, other design qualities come into play. It must be simple and natural to use – easy to learn, predictable, and consistent.
  • Utility: Last comes utility -- does the site actually deliver the information or service the customer was looking for in the first place?

--Web Usability: A Simple Framework, October 17, 2005

As in a quiz show, to win the grand prize -- satisfied customers -- you have to get it right at every stage. Fail at any one and you will lose customers. Fail consistently at any one, and you will be out of business.

As I experienced their service today, Technorati seemed to be failing on all four fronts.

Availability

First I noticed that my browser was replacing the thumbnail portrait that usually appears (near the bottom of my sidebar) under technorati links with alternative text. Next I tried Technorati's link to Blogs that link here and, eventually, was rewarded with:

Illustration: Firefox Connection Reset screen

It's not that I desperately need to see my own picture there at all times, or that I think my readers are dying to see the inbound links (or blog reactions, as Technorati calls them). I know that widget in my sidebar has marginal utility -- a few people may use it occasionally. That's why I put it near the bottom, where it doesn't interfere with anyone's ability to browse the site. If it works, it does no harm. On the other hand, if it's broken, it becomes a distinct liability. Broken links lower the quality of the whole site..

In this case, the connection reset error means that the Web server accepted the request, but then took so long to respond that the browser timed out. While this may not qualify as a broken link, it had the same effect: the requested page was unavailable.

Upon checking back a few hours later, the sidebar link was working. Again, not a surprise. Intermittent outages like this have been characteristic of Technorati for a long time -- see my post on Taming the Technorati Monster.

Performance

I'm not going to dwell on this, because if you've tried to find things on Technorati lately, you already know how the service performs. For me, it typically ranges from slow to glacial, for a search engine. Maybe it's just my particular interests -- Web Performance and Application Responsiveness are not especially hot topics. Perhaps other people who are interested in more popular topics are scoring cache hits and are actually getting good Web performance. That would be ironic!

Clarity

Returning to my problems with the blog reactions widget, normally I would let this incident pass without comment. But today I actually noticed the problem while I was doing a blog search about problems with Technorati's tag indexing and search functions, because my blog seems to have fallen off their radar lately.

In the past, tags used in a post would be indexed and returned in a search within the hour, often within minutes. Today, Technorati's search function was sure I had not published anything for the last 27 days. But when I navigated manually to their page for my blog, they displayed excerpts of all my more recent posts.

Some more digging revealed that even though Technorati's site was up, and even though I could use it to navigate manually to a page listing blog reactions, the sidebar link to that same information, which Technorati's widget was generating, did not work. In any Web site or application, these kinds of internal inconsistencies are hugely frustrating. They make me doubt the accuracy and completeness of any information the application returns.

And not surprisingly, searching for help on Technorati itself does nothing to reassure me that they will be fixing these problems anytime soon. Quite the contrary, it confirms their problems, as in this amusing response:

Illustration: Technorati Search Problems

(Is Technorati beatin' 'round the bush here? Can a search engine actually lie about what it really knows? :)

Utility

Google's Blog Search feature, however, did know something. It pointed me to this sensible post by ChristineMM:

Trying Out Blog Widgets and Tools

I would like a search box on my blog that lets my readers (and me) search for content from within the pages of my blog. The Google one that I used to use was not working right, I’d search for a word that was right in front of me or even in a blog post title and it would say there were no matches, so I dumped that function.

I then for a long time used a Technorati box. At some point I realized it was not working well either. Again I’d search for a keyword that was in a blog post title and it would say there were no matches. So this week I deleted it from my sidebar. What is the point of having a blog reader search for a topic on my blog, be told I never blogged on it, when in reality, I actually did?

...

One last thing I’ll mention is that I get a ton, and I mean a ton of blog readers through Google primarily and also some other Internet search engines. I feel that my regular use of Technorati tags helps my blog posts be found by Google and the other search engines. This drives traffic to my blog. So if you want to drive traffic to your blog, use Technorati tags in every blog post of substance.

--The Thinking Mother, September 23, 2007

Well said, Christine! If an application does not deliver the service you need, it's useless. I dropped Technorati's search box some time ago, for similar reasons. The integrated Squarespace search box is 1000 times more useful for searching the blog, and Google has the Web covered far more effectively than Technorati, in my opinion.

The bottom line

I think Christine may have homed in on the essence of the matter, sad though it may be. Unless Technorati can recover its original sense of purpose and fix its technical problems, it's not going to survive as an independent, useful, service. Perhaps its most significant contribution will be its promotion of a standard tagging format that is easily recognized and reused by other search engines.

So I'm not giving up on my Technorati tags yet, but I'm not counting on getting much value from their blog indexing or searching tools either. I've already removed their blog search and tag cloud functions from my sidebar, and their blog reactions widget is now on probation. Any more problems and it will be the next to go.

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Reader Comments (3)

Thank you for your compliment on what I blogged and for quoting me and giving me credit for what I said.

I did not write how I sometimes find my own blog posts which I published in the past. Since I could not rely on the Technorati search box I now use Google. It is faster for me to find an old blog post of mine so I can link to it in the post I am writing by using Google instead of even my own PC's 'search' function. I go to Google and input in quotes, the name of my blog, then the topic or a piece of what I think the title of my old blog post was. And VOILA, it comes up, within a second!

So that is useful for ME but it still is not good for my blog readers.

I also will share with you that in the past I would check Technorati to see how long ago they pinged my blog and I'd do the 'ping now' function or whatever it is called, and it would not work. I used to complain to the site owner. I finally gave up and don't even look at that info any more.

September 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChristineMM

Christine,

I understand your description of finding old blog posts using Google. Google works that way for Web Performance Matters too. So I keep their search box in my sidebar, though I mostly use the built-in Squarespace search myself. Technorati's search functions are not in the same league as those two options, for either responsiveness or coverage.

I have also had the problems you describe with Technorati pings. My experience is that if their software decides to index your site -- for its own inscrutable reasons -- then you're in luck today. Otherwise, you're out of luck. And sending pings seems to make little or no difference to what their software decides to do on any given day. Lately I've been pinging them about our new blog, UpRight Matters, but with no discernible success.

Sometimes I think that the ping function is just a placebo, to give blog owners like you and me something to do, rather than complain to Technorati. It's like a pedestrian push-button at a crosswalk in a busy intersection -- pushing that button lets us feel that we're telling the system to turn on the little "cross now" light. But we can push that button all we want, and the light won't appear one second before its pre-ordained time.

Unfortunately, Technorati's responses are not nearly as predictable as those of traffic signals, or we wouldn't be so frustrated with them.

--Chris

September 26, 2007 | Registered CommenterChris Loosley

Chris,

Great piece. I'd love to talk with you about it a bit more, and to get you involved in the Watching Websites book for O'Reilly. Drop me a line; I don't have your new coordinates.

A.

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

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