The online home for Greg Leedberg, since 1995.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

CNet: The Fall Of A Once-Great Website

Back in the day, by which I mean the year 2000, I couldn't say enough nice things about the website CNet. They had a great section of reviews of software, hardware, and gadgets in general. They supplied useful computer news to enthusiasts. And, most of all, they had a big hand in popularizing my first big software project, Billy.

I "released" the first version of Billy in late 1999. I put it on my website, uploaded it to Simtel and a couple of other download-oriented websites, and was happy to be getting a download or two each day. Then one day I decided to submit it to CNet's Download.com website, which at that time was pretty much the biggest download website in the world.

As soon as Billy hit Download.com, downloads went through the roof. Right from the beginning, at least 100 people a day were downloading Billy from that site, and that number continued to grow. During Billy's run on Download.com, I estimate at least 200,000 people got the program from that site. And from there, Billy just grew. Once 200,000 people had their hands on my software, it started popping up on other websites, review sites, and traffic to my overall web site started to surge as well.

CNet's Download.com is really significantly responsible for the success of Billy and Leedberg.com.

But then Download.com began to change. Rather than letting people freely submit their software, a fee was required. For a small hobbyist project like Billy (and, I'm guessing, the majority of projects on Download.com), it was next to impossible to pay a fee for this service. So, I pulled Billy from that site. Luckily, it had been up there long enough that I had established a strong hold outside of Download.com as well, so pulling it from that one site did not spell the end of interest in the project.

So, that's evil act #1 -- Download.com went from being the #1 supporter of small, free, high-quality software projects (all posted projects went by an editor first), to suddenly caring more about money. As a result, the software selection on Download.com started to slant more towards demos of commercial software, so it stopped serving its users as well.

It doesn't stop there.

After a couple of years, I visited Download.com again, and found out that they had done away with their fee, and now it was possible for small project to submit for free. Hoping that Download.com had gone back to its roots, I re-submitted Billy. During the submission process, I used a disposable email address from SpamGourmet.

Which brings us to evil act #2 -- Within hours of submitting Billy, spam started to pour in to the disposable account. Apparently, Download.com had made up for the lost fee by selling e-mail addresses to spammers. Most submitters who use their private email address probably would not realize this, but since I used a disposable, single-use email address, it was very apparent.

So Download.com (and CNet in general) has gone from being one of my most respected websites, to being evil, to being forgiven, to being born-again evil. What a tangled web we weave.

I understand that money is necessary for a website the size of CNet to function. However, you shouldn't serve the interests of money at the expense of the users of the site -- otherwise, you'll have a running site but no users! This is obvious in the success of Google versus the decline (in quality) of Yahoo. Whereas Google focused from the beginning of non-obtrusive, relevant text ads, and sticking to a core set of services that users actually wanted, Yahoo continued to add image and animated ads and services no one wants. Just compare their front pages. CNet is using Yahoo's playbook, while they should be emulating Google.

Focus on goodwill towards your users, find a revenue stream that aligns with, but doesn't obstruct, that goodwill, and the money will come. Until then, I once again choose not to use CNet.

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