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Ask HN: Why did delicious.com fail?
107 points by bookbinder on Oct 17, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 74 comments
One day it was popular and then it started going through redesigns and relaunches. For a while, I used it to see what was trending, but then they hid that info from the home page and then brought it back until finally the site appeared to be a broken ghost town.

I'm just trying to construct a narrative to satisfy my curiosity. What exactly happened? Was it death by a thousand cuts (if so, where did it get cut?) or was there one fatal mistake (like Digg).

Discuss. (And feel free to share any links to stories/articles on Delicious' demise.)

EDIT: Typo. I meant "Digg", not "Reddit."

Acquired in 2005 with 300k users. Had 4m users and maybe 1m MAU in early 2007 before the transition to the v2 site.

Yahoo management did a huge amount of work to kill momentum.

1) We were forced to migrate to PHP. We were not allowed to have ops support until this was complete.

2) We inherited the Yahoo Photos team that brought a backend that they had written for that platform. They estimated it would take six months to migrate delicious to that new platform. It took 2+ years.

3) We were denied having actual access to VESPA and had to reuse MyWeb's backend instead, which was designed for a different feature set.

4) Almost all the staff were placed on Yahoo Answers anyway, which ended up dying of its own accord anyway.

That's not likely what caused its decline. I used Delicious for quite a while, and my reduction in use had nothing to do with what it used on the backend. I think it served its purpose as a social bookmarking site pretty well for the time it lasted. But it finally started its decline likely due to old fashioned competition. Google pretty much made the need for personal bookmarks obsolete, and sites like Digg and Reddit were a much better method of sharing links with curated lists and discussions.

It lost momentum - no features or anything added for three years.

A large number of people use computers as memory tools. Trello, Evernote, Pinterest, etc. - Google doesn't seem to be particularly relevant. Perhaps you mistake your usage pattern for everyone's?

Neither Digg nor Reddit made a way to share curated lists, so no clue what you are talking about there.

I have no specific knowledge here. But I've been a del.icio.us user since I think 2005.

In general, despite great promise and utility (IMHO), curated bookmarking of this sort never really took off. It's always been around, and still is. Why? some guesses:

Not that many people are data-oriented enough to want to use such a service. Same reason RSS is relatively unpopular.

Delicious and related services never generated the sort of social proof / payoff that drove other services. E.g. desire for friends / followers / karma were essential to FB / twitter / HN (since we are here!). Delicious was high on the personal utility, low on the social reward.

I'm not sure this is that related to Delicious' functionality, but might just be a cultural / community function, that never really developed in this case. It's not tech that makes HN awesome, it's people. But given that Digg / Slashdot faded, this may not be as popular a category. Reddit is huge now... but it's more of a forum vs. link sharing.

And these services are so easy to create, who would pay for them? In the absences of hype / popularity, not much of a business there. I switched to raindrop, which is great. But others were close.

It's very sad to me. I think that the ability to socially curate the web, and to vote up/down on such resources, is actually really valuable to the long-term health of the internet.

Maybe we're just not ready yet...

This is not a good take. Both RSS and Delicious were immensely popular in 2004-5, and the sites that cloned Delicious (Digg and Reddit) went on to great success. There was a very active and interesting community around Delicious in the early days.

Yahoo ended up smothering Delicious because the people who oversaw it had no idea what it was for, just like they smothered Upcoming, Flickr and other acquisitions that could have grown into something remarkable.

When reddit first launched I remember thinking, what a pathetically derivative site, they're going to get crushed :-)

* Reddit is a cesspit waiting to fail that encourages abuse as a platform. I am waiting for what replaces them as there is a lot of information people are looking to share without the torrent of garbage that comes with it currently.

* Slashdot faded because new buyers came in who didn't understand the product.

* RSS still exists and is going strong. It just does the job without the flash, the reason content producers don't like it is that you can't monetize it in the same way as email. I personally use TheOldReader for curating this.

* I'm going to add Sourceforge as a site that shot themselves in the face. It seems like it's newest owners have done a lot to try and repair the damage.

Raindrop looks fantastic, I'm glad you brought it up. I'm guessing we few are the kind of people keeping this type of service alive.

> Reddit is a cesspit waiting to fail that encourages abuse as a platform.

People mistake reddit for a single bulletin board, because it allows you to aggregate multiple subreddits, and criticize it like it's a single place. In reality it's just a free hosted bulletin board service. As such, it's just a cross-section of the internet, and to criticize reddit is to criticize the abstract concept of internet fora. There are serious places like /AskHistorians in there, along with many others. There are bad neighborhoods/poorly moderated fora in there, but that doesn't make reddit itself a cesspool any more than the existence of Skid Row makes Los Angeles County a cesspool.

What do you mean, 'waiting to fail'? How long should we wait? A decade? Two decades? The success of reddit would seem to be at odds with your opinion.

Aren't Slashdot & sourceforge owned by the same owners at present? which also owns and frozen freshmeat (that was later renamed freecode or something)

del.icio.us (original) was very awesome and revolutionary (these are my thoughts about it in 2007 http://www.michaelhoover.org/mike/2007/08/delicious-is-th.ht...). the subsequent idiotic decisions by buyers yahoo, avos et al were not only abject incompetence, but typical for most acquisitions - both then and now. the original site didn't fail in the least; however, every iteration thereafter were just attempts to create "affiliate marketing" and seo link farms of spammy garbage. i'm still pissed that the youtube clowns at avos deleted my account along with years of curated links. yeah i have multiple exports - thx to joshua :) - but annoying nonetheless.

I think this is a great answer, and I agree. I'd also add it just seems like I use the web completely differently now than I did a decade ago. I don't feel the need to save sites or links or anything now. I'm not quite sure why that is. I assume I won't need them again? I assume they're just one of many and if I can't find them again I'll find another?

I just don't feel the need to curate the web now. I'm not sure all the crappy redesigns would matter at this point, I wouldn't be using it now anyways.

I still remember this big change, really drove me crazy at the time:


I was an early del.icio.us user and initially thought it was pretty cool but after a while stopped using it. Google has made most hand indexing of web content irrelevant because you can generally find things again if you vaguely remember where you saw them the first time.

In a way it's analogous to the schema on write vs. schema on read approaches to data analysis. If you don't know the end use of data, schema on read is usually a lot more efficient.

Edit: left out 'user'

For me the link rot is at the highest rate ever. So no point bookmarking, just search engines sadly.

> Same reason RSS is relatively unpopular.

My take on this is that copy/pasting a script was a broken UX for mainstream adoption.

There are lots of RSS feed extensions that handle feed detection/subscription for you.

Yes absolutely, and they're great. But if your understanding of RSS is clicking on an RSS button and getting junk code on your screen, that's the end of the line for most people.

Completely different to a 'like' button experience.

Pretty much everyone I know who uses RSS/bookmarking services/etc. is some variant on blogger/writer/analyst/journalist. It's worthwhile for us to save links that might be useful for future reference and/or to link to in a piece. To be fair, between Google search and social media generally these types of services are less important to me than they once were but I still use them.

Because it got bought by Yahoo. They didn't take care of it properly. Then it got bought by Avos systems, who didn't take care of it properly. Then it got bought again by people who didn't take care of it properly.

Now it is finally owned by Pinboard. But most of the users who abandoned del.icio.us had already switched to Pinboard. Now all is well.

Some related discussion over at Metafilter during the Pinboard acquisition timeframe:


Pinboard Acquires Delicious | https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14462384 (Jun 2017, 227 comments)

For a few years I was the Silicon Valley Necromancer, attempting to reenergize failing businesses with new technology. I was on the Delicious team at AVOS (2012-2013), whom acquired Delicious from Yahoo!. I probably know very little of the whole story...but...I can at least share some of the technical challenges that we faced.

I lead the team on the re-write that brought Delicious into the single page app (SPA) world. Most people wondered why we built the app from scratch again. The python codebase that the Yahoo! team managed, I am not sure if they started their version of the app that way or if the inherited it, but we concluded that it would be quicker to re-write the app as opposed to dissecting the exiting application codebase. This is the primary reason why stacks were canned, regardless of what others might have said. Many times rewrites require reducing features in order to build a new foundation. This is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not.

A rewrite also gave us the opportunity to build the app as an SPA. While we made an SPA, React, Redux, Webpack, Gulp, etc. did not exist, and we definitely ended up spending more time than expected creating inferior toolsets due to the lack of options at the time.

Another major challenge we faced was that the database was sharded in such a way that if your username was "zebra" the backend would hit MySQL server 1, then 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, and finally 10 before returning results. If your username was "apple" you'd get a response quite quickly. I am not sure if we ever completed the migration into new shards/replicas.

There were also some random old API endpoints where we had to double encode periods in the url or the API would throw an exception. Obviously there was no documentation on for our treasure hunt to find which API endpoints had this major issue.

We didn't get any notice at AVOS before the team was moved off of Delicious to work on other projects. Perhaps we took too much time building the rewrite, or perhaps we realized there was no business model worth the time.

AVOS would later make a unilateral decision to move all projects to Angular, which was not a framework I believed would benefit my career development. I left AVOS when StubmleUpon called me and said, "hey if you can make Delicious a SPA, do you think you can make our app an SPA?"

Boy, I sure know how to pick 'em...

P.S. I will say that the Delicious team at AVOS was a very talented team and I am thankful for each day I got to work with them.

[edit] for grammar [edit ii] Since it doesn't seem clear in the comments: I'd build Delicious differently today.

> For a few years I was the Silicon Valley Necromancer, attempting to reenergize failing businesses with new technology.

Users don't care what technology stack you are running as long as you don't lose their data. They care about responsiveness, ease of use, new features that make them think you have their interests at heart, since it was a mostly free product.

The underlying lesson of Chesterson's fence is especially poignant here: instead of commissioning a rewrite, investing in tools that would help your team make sense of the existing codebase so you could fix the technical challenges is a less risky strategy. It also allows JIT documentation of the codebase as you clean up technical debt.

I am undoing literally all of your work right now. I curse you daily!

OPs story sounded really dangerous - rewriting an existing app that is in scale with unproven tech.

Care to share some fun facts on what you're doing right now? Please?(;

I'm just moving it back to flat pages without the javascript cruft.

Thx for sharing.

Writing a too complicated front-end is probably one of those situations that I am getting into more often in the last years..

After some 15 years doing web dev, I'm starting to encourage SPAs more and more sparingly - only where they _actually_ improve UX and it's worth the extra work.

It was long dead by the time you showed up, so I'm not sure how this was particularly relevant.

Making an effort is always relevant.

Sorry that your project didn't reach the potential that it should have. I really enjoyed using and working on Delicious. Some of us still believed it had a chance while working on it.

[edit] As hackers it's important to highlight & discuss technical challenges a project faced..regardless if those challenges had true relevance to the project's fate.

Current owner of Delicious here.

Here's my understanding of the history (which I hope people like joshu correct if I'm wrong):

The site was awesome and popular pre-Yahoo, but also pretty overwhelming to run. Yahoo brought it with resources, scale, and sweet, sweet promises that they understood Web 2.0. Instead, they quickly moved Joshua to a position where he couldn't really steer the product, and got sidetracked into redesigns and time sinks like integrating Yahoo ID as logins. The original, ambitious plan (integrate Delicious as a signal into Yahoo search, and make it unbeatable in real-time trending topics) was lost to management paralysis.

Yahoo disastrously announced it would 'sunset' the site before actually having a plan for it, so in winter 2010 a large number of people jumped ship. Sites like mine (Pinboard) benefitted a lot, Delicious was crippled.

The new owners at AVOS seem to have had a grandiose idea that they would repeat their YouTube-scale success, and rewrote the site accordingly, to serve billions. The handoff from Yahoo was one of data, not code (since things were written to run on Yahoo's platform) and required users to opt in. This hemmorhaged users further, while AVOS engineers wrote a bloated and ambitious Delicious clone.

But the biggest mistake was when AVOS turned off some features beloved by a core Delicious constituency, fanfic authors. In particular, they made it impossible to search on the "/" character in tags, which instantly rendered a lot of the elaborate fanfic tagging and classification scheme useless. In my mind, that's when Delicious hit the point of no return.

AVOS failed through some combination of founder grandiosity and short attention span. They managed to get the worst of all worlds—high spam, low revenue, and a $40K a month AWS bill. They sold to Science Inc., a bunch of LA tech bros who WROTE EMAIL IN ALL CAPS and owned a bizarre collection of other online apps.

When they tired of it, they sold it to Tony Aly, an SEO specialist who wanted to try his hand on a bigger project, but eventually found himself overwhelmed by the support and operational burden. At that point, he sold it to me, and I parked it on a couple of expensive servers and made it read-only.

To the question "what happened", I think the best answer is that Yahoo killed the site by neglect. AVOS took it past the point of no return by making it bloated, slow, and antagonizing the last remaining group of core users. None of its acquirers ever understood what it was for.

Except me. I understand you, Delicious! But I also compete with you. No more tears now, only dreams.

I managed to fend off the forced Yahoo logins by virtue of one fact: Three quarters of the users had gmail accounts, or something like that.

I think Delicious had died before AVOS even touched them.

Hello! Can I buy you a coffee in SF? I suppose we're building a competitor to you, but generally think there's room enough for lots of solutions to this space.

You fool! Never compete with Pinboard! Have you learned nothing!


Also, we are tiny, so 'competitor' is a laughable comparison.

I mean, idlewords is just this guy...

Well maybe mceoin is a smaller person?

My recollection is that it was acquired by Yahoo and promptly stopped receiving any attention. At least one of the founders left Yahoo a few years later. Not unlike what happened to Flickr, except Flickr had enough momentum and traction to not completely die. It wasn't long after all that that Yahoo Brickhouse closed up completely too. I don't think its fate was a result of anything intrinsic, just a byproduct of Yahoo's decline.

Flickr negotiated a separate HQ as part of its acquisition, which helped them stay independent for a little while. Delicious had no chance under 39 layers of Sunnyvale management.

I may be in the minority here, but I used delicious as a "bookmarking in the cloud" feature because it was around before synced bookmarks were a thing. I was changing machines quite a lot and so didn't want to use the browser's bookmarks.

Now Chrome does this feature pretty well native I don't really need delicious anymore, i never used it much for its social aspect.

Yahoo bungled Flickr and Upcoming by neglect - limited resources and demanding integration rather than features. I'd imagine Delicious was the same, but I don't have a link handy.

For Flickr: https://gizmodo.com/5910223/how-yahoo-killed-flickr-and-lost...

For Upcoming: https://medium.com/message/diary-of-a-corporate-sellout-5874...

I was an avid user of del.icio.us in its heyday but I remember these things pushed me away:

* major redesigns (the current Hulu redesign is about as bad)

* competitors, there were a lot of good bookmarking services. I think I went with Evernote

The wikipedia page has a lot of what went wrong https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delicious_(website)

I think it died because bookmarking is a feature, not a company. As so many syncing and social media services gained traction, a pure bookmarking service was always gonna get lost in the noise. I was A Delicious user for a while, but now I use Firefox sync and Evernote for bookmarks. As for exploring others bookmarks, I use Facebook for that.

Pinterest is visual bookmarking (though it may be phrased differencly), so a small tweak to the model made all the difference.

It feels like Pinterest feels will start declining if they haven't already. Being forced to sign in or download the app kills any openness.

They are hugely profitable

Delicious - like Mr Wong which I liked - was one of the these social but anonymous services. Some people may have chosen their normal pseudonym of choice and even shared it with friends, others may have not.

IMHO that's also the reason why Facebook was winning above all the other Social Networks, it was "real" and not anonymous (or pseudonymous). Virtually all popular social but (kind of) anonymous services of the past didn't survive or at least not make it to today's mainstream: forums, MySpace, ICQ... Reddit is kind of popular but almost exclusively used by techies or people considering themselves nerdy.

I wonder if one could make a modern Delicious, with mandatory Facebook connect or something. Not sure though if that would still work out of privacy concerns. Actually one might consider Pinterest something quite close to it.

Same as the reason for the failure of Upcoming (v1) and underperformance of Flickr: Yahoo & its frothy brew of money plus strategic blindness.

You might also throw the fate of ~pg's Viaweb, once it became Yahoo Stores, into that same class of fumbled opportunities. And so you can read Graham on Yahoo & get a good idea of the issues:


I loved Delicious and I really wanted to stay there, but at some point, the Firefox plugin broke and it wasn't fixed for maybe months. I started using the web interface to save my urls, but it was cumbersome. Then I started looking for alternatives and I paid the lifetime subscription for Pinboard, $9 at the time. Then I switched and I'm a happy Pinboard user since then.

Not super familiar with Delicious, but from what I've seen most HN folk seem to use Pinboard ( http://pinboard.in/ ) as a bookmarking tool.

If I remember correctly the terms of sale required that they get each user's permission to use their links, so the site was vastly diminished.

Again if I remember correctly there was a decent API for del.ico.us but this was not a priority for delicious.com.

The site was premised on the idea of "folksonomy" ie that structure would emerge from the accumulated links. This hypothesis didn't bear out.

"folksonomy" was a word created after the fact to describe what I built. Therefore not a premise.

Most users did have structure to their bookmarks. If I had been allowed resources I think we would have built something that lined up similar structures across users and groups of users.

I believe the hypothesis was robustly accurate, especially in the modern world of machine learning.

The folksonomy hypothesis bore out pretty well. Look at the world of machine learning around you.

Prior to Delicious, many people were convinced that you could not get useful tagging data without a controlled vocabulary. Oops.

Totally rumor-mill, I had heard that it was, after being acquired by Yahoo, rewritten entirely in PHP, because that's what Yahoo used, and as a result lost all momentum for new features. However, as I said, t his is total rumor mill, and I cannot claim to know if it's true.

Delicious was written in Perl (Mason) and ported to PHP at Yahoo. The language change had nothing to do with the horrible management and lack of product vision at Yahoo, though.

This is actually pretty accurate. There was a backend written in Erlang and some other bullshit that also delayed things by years.

Erlang makes me break out in facial twitches to this day.

I stayed away from site for a long time because of the url, del.icio.us. I'm probably just thick headed or something but my mind read that as three words, "Del Icio US," and thought "wtf?"

For me, it died the day its popular RSS feed stopped working.

Acquisition by Yahoo! Flickr suffered the same fate.

I would still be on delicio.us except for the scare that Yahoo was going to shut them down. I moved on to Diigo.com and never looked back.

I think Delicious succeed at what it wanted to be (a nerdy bookmarking site that people like myself loved).

What it failed at (under Yahoo) was navigating its product and audience around to the point where it could have become a Pinterest like Behemoth.

Facebook for all it's flaws and my general concerns with them have proven themselves the masters at incorporating and updating both acquisitions and their core product to attract a general audience that they can make money off of.

I'm currently building a "social bookmarking" tool, so can't speak to first hand evidence but have looked into this and spoken to people (2nd hand, not 1st hand sources).

[would love to chat over coffee or email with others passionate about this space. @mceoin on twitter]

Why delicious died: - Yahoo acquisition. Death by a thousand cuts from that day forth. Some things here really pissed off core users include Yahoo sign in and shuttering some core features that power users loved (see exodus to Pinboard).

Landscape: - The attention economy has definitely shifted. Perhaps delicious could have evolved along with it (we'll never know), but now it is certainly the case that it is more difficult to gain mass adoption for products that will provide you with lists of information, since 'good enough' alternatives exist (notably, these are typically feeds, not lists) - the world has gone mobile.

Who lives, who dies, who tells their story? - Most died or were acquired (it turns out if you develop a team of search and indexing experts, you're pretty attractive to big companies). I counted 20+ here, about 50% acquired, the rest: ?? - Pinterest had the visual twist, and grew to 200m people - Pinboard generated revenue from Yr1, and has a small but profitable user base (important, because "not dying" is a core piece of the puzzle). - Kippt had a great product but team was ultimately were acquired by Coinbase, so it would be awesome to hear more about their experience. - Pocket lives on through Mozilla acquisition. In my experience they never cracked the social piece, although definitely provided the individual utility to be a daily-active-utility. Watch-this-space.

Why is this space difficult, generally? You would think that being able to explore lists of what people find interesting is appealing, and it certainly is (in theory). There's a hierarchy in information discovery for this space where: personal saves > friend saves > followee saves > random people saves. - social products require high clustering coefficients (very important). This seems to be particularly difficult to obtain in social bookmarking space. (I believe, but cannot confirm, that most products went too wide too early, and failed to nail this experience. Facebook's control of launch from college to college is a different but effective strategy that gave them saturation, so I believe a restricted entry via referral is pragmatic approach here.) - Low virality. This is a hard one to prove since non-success doesn't mean no potential for breakout success. - Low target market. Same point as above.

Monetization (three options I see): - advertising: requires mass scale, hence most attempts here die. - pay to play: Pinboard is doing this. (does this preclude wider adoption? or are other factors at play?) A balance of paying for privacy features might be an option here. - crowdfunding/non-profit: e.g. wikipedia model. Nobody has tried this yet. Would take a certain kind of team and community, but might position itself well for being a long term human-curated archive of the web.

I have some thoughts on how what this space lacks and what can be done differently that I'm happy to share privately. Suffice to say that we want this, and believe there's an opportunity to build a product that at least a few people love.

Who is taking a crack at at "social bookmarking" today? - Refind.com. Notably, they're more "show me what my friends are reading right now" and feel like a slimmer, more reading focused, twitter feed. Mobile app is best consumption vehicle. - Mix.com (from Garret Camp/Expa). Hasn't 'clicked' for me personally, but if might for you. - Us! We're not ready for a Show HN but if you're in SF and love this space, please do hit me up on twitter for a coffee: @mceoin.

> Facebook's control of launch from college to college is a different but effective strategy that gave them saturation, so I believe a restricted entry via referral is pragmatic approach here.

Off-topic: I wonder who made the call on the next college to move to when Facebook expanded out of Harvard to other colleges.

Was it Zuckerberg? Would love to read about this aspect from Facebook's history as whoever came up with the strategy had a clear understanding of the Economics concept of artificial scarcity [0] and its attendant effects; it was incredibly effective at stirring up sustained interest among college students and the wider population about TheFacebook.com until it was their turn to sign up for an account.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artificial_scarcity

Not sure. I studied crowd behavior through sociology when at university and remember looking into the pattern of streaking behavior in the 70s (? - might have been 60s). Typically started at an elite university, then spread to all the 'lower tier' universities in the same region. Wouldn't be surprised if FB took same approach wrt signaling.

Not exactly [0] [1] [2].

They started at Harvard then spread to other elite universities (outside Boston) before slowly opening up access to 'lower tier' universities in the same region as Harvard like you said, then other regions.

[0] Zuckerberg's Facebook started off as just a "Harvard thing" until Zuckerberg decided to spread it to other schools, enlisting the help of roommate Dustin Moskovitz. They began with Columbia University, New York University, Stanford, Dartmouth, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Brown, and Yale. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Zuckerberg#Facebook

[1] In March 2004, Facebook expanded to Stanford, Columbia, and Yale. This expansion continued when it opened to all Ivy League and Boston-area schools. It gradually reached most universities in the United States and Canada. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Facebook#FaceMash

[2] Harvard students are no longer the only ones cyber-stalking their classmates and professors on thefacebook.com. With the click of a keyboard and squeak of a mouse, students at Columbia University and Stanford University can now track down that hottie in section or get help with problem sets. Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06, the website’s creator, opened his online networking service to Columbia last Wednesday and to Stanford the day after. From http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2004/3/1/facebook-expands-...

For me, it was always painfully slow to work with.

del.icio.us ?

Haha del.ico.us actually died for me when it moved to delicous.com. Used to be kind of popular with academics and librarians too at that time.

Not sure why I got downvoted. I was the first comment and just trying to clarify which site the submitter was talking about (since he said "delicious.com").

I upvoted you because I didn't know that delicious.com was del.icio.us.com until I read the comments.

The same product was served under both domains at different points in its life.

It tried to compete with Pinboard.

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