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