Digg v4 hands-on: A better Digg, but is it enough?

We take a look at the new Digg, which is currently in private alpha testing, to show you what's new and what's changed from the current version.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
7 min read
Digg logo

Social news site Digg.com is set to launch the fourth major iteration of its site. Last week the company invited an extra 20,000 users to its version four alpha test--a number that is likely to grow in the coming days and weeks.

Given a tumultuous past few months for the company, which has seen a leadership shake-up at its very highest levels, and what insiders have described as an "exodus" of key employees, version four is more than just a redesign--it's effectively a reboot of the Digg brand.

The most obvious question is whether this new version of the site, which has been teased by the company for the past year, is truly better. The answer is a resounding yes. It's faster, cleaner, and easier to both Digg stories up, as well as submit them. It also does a much better job at filtering the large number of submitted stories by their source. But even with those improvements, Digg feels like the same site it was a few years ago, which will likely do little to silence the site's critics.

A short history lesson
How long has it been since the last major Digg revision? Try June 2006, which is when version three was announced at a bar party, then publicly launched a few months later. Back then, the biggest new feature was the inclusion of video and podcasting content that could play right on Digg story pages. These two additions were brought on as separate sections of the site--both of which would later be consolidated into just a video section when the site added an image category. Digg version 3 also brought a face lift that would let users customize what categories they saw on the front page.

Between then and now, Digg has had a few tune ups, including:
a complete re-write of the site code which ditched MySQL in favor of the more decentralized Cassandra
• an overhauled search engine
• a framing toolbar called the DiggBar, which drew plenty of controversy in its year or so of existence.

There was also the launch of mobile apps, a user uprising over free speech, and several murmurs of an acquisition.

So what does Digg's fourth version bring to the table? Let's break it down by feature:

The new stuff

Digg's new follower feature.
If Digg's new follower tool reminds you a bit of Twitter, that's because it brings similar functionality. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

New followers/following paradigm, and a social news feed
Similar to Twitter and Facebook's fan pages, Digg users can now follow a content source and see when new stories from that particular site have been submitted. Alongside Digg users, you're able to import people from Twitter, Facebook, and Google. This process is actually the first thing users see when logging into the new Digg, though it can be skipped entirely.

The way it works, is that Digg breaks down profiles by category. Each of these categories can be followed or unfollowed, the former of which means new items from these contacts will show up in Digg's new "My News" section. This is simply a listing of the most recent or popular content from sites or people you're following--akin to what you'd get on Facebook's news feed if you were to filter by links only.

How important the new My News page is to Digg is pretty clear based on the fact that it's the default page when visiting Digg.com while logged on. Users actually have to click over to the "Top News" tab of the site to see what unregistered users get. This isn't even something you can change in Digg's drastically simplified user settings panel.

Digg has also added an additional layer of personalization to the site's sidebar, which now populates the top links from people you're following. These are shown in order of how many of your friends Dugg any particular link. And clicking on the story pages themselves shows you those friends in chronological digging order.

Imported feeds on Digg
Digg now shows you which feeds a publisher is pulling in automatically. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Auto-submission of content
What is arguably one of the most important, behind the scenes new features of Digg 4 is auto-submission of content. This lets you add the RSS feed of your own site to Digg, so that every time you post something new there, it's automatically submitted to Digg.

To set it up you have to verify that the feed is indeed yours. All this involves is adding a small tracking code on the page, which can later be deleted.

The new system lets users follow organizations that do this, to see new links in near real-time. For these folks it's now arguably more beneficial to be seen as the providers of that content. And for smaller sites and individuals, auto-submission makes it much easier to feed the site with new content--all without having to rely on other users to do it for you.

From the looks of its followers directory, Digg already has plenty of sites on board for auto-submission, but it will be interesting to see what sites that had previously relied on Digg users to submit stories, finally end up using Digg's tools instead.

Instant, smarter submission
One of the biggest user interface changes is that the top of every news page has a giant "submit a link" text entry field. As soon as you paste the link of that story into that space, Digg runs it through the service's duplication detector to see if someone has already submitted it.

Submitting something to Digg
The new submit field stays at the top of most Digg.com pages. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The big change here is that you can no longer submit your story if someone has beaten you to it. Instead, you can simply Digg it up, and add a comment. This should drastically cut down on the number of resubmissions, spammy entries, and intentional duplications done by power users. On the downside, it also means that when a submitter has changed the headline, and description of a link, you or someone else cannot go to resubmit it with the correct information.

Light on the ads (for now)
One very noticeable change in Digg 4 is that there are very few advertisements. In several hours of use, the only place we noticed ads were on story pages--something that is sure to change when the site goes live.

Based on an earlier video by Digg founder and current CEO Kevin Rose, who demonstrated some of the upcoming features to publishers in late May, the ads were in similar spots to where they are on Digg's current site. But since the site now effectively has publisher pages, the redesign opens the site up to some more deeply integrated advertising and paid branding opportunities for these bigger companies.

Digg's front page
Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

If Digg does decide to tone down the ads when the new version goes live, that would be a big surprise given that the current version of the site boasts five times the number of advertisements per page. That number includes the company's sponsored submissions ad platform, whose ads function the same as a normal story on Digg. These types of ads did not show up for us in the Digg v4 alpha.

No more subcategories
Digg v3 (on the left) has subcategories, while v4 (on the right) does not. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

The death of subcategories
Gone are subcategories. This has clearly been done to make the submission process simpler, but a side effect of that is that each category is now a little more difficult to thin out by topic.

What makes this interesting is that during a demo of Digg v4 back at South by Southwest, former Digg CEO Jay Adelson said that user-created tags would be the new way of categorizing content.

A simpler explanation for the removal is that subcategories demanded their own URLs, which under the new Digg have been replaced with user and publisher URLs. Keeping that system of categorization would have required either longer links, or amended versions of all previous URLs.

As mentioned above, the culmination of these additions, and revisions makes for an experience that is largely the same as it was before. In other words, if you want a flow of more than 120 popular new stories a day to look at, the old Digg is still there. But with the addition of My News, and more prominently positioned user-submitted content and activity, Digg v4 goes a long way toward making the site feel more alive and connected to the people you're friends with.

The biggest change is arguably for publishers big and small who get equal footing in getting their content onto Digg automatically. Given a wide enough adoption, this turns Digg into a place where people can keep abreast of not only the big stories, but also the newest stories from around the Web in an orderly fashion. It also ends up giving the site far better tools to compete with, and replicate the real-time feel and utility of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and to some degree--RSS reading tools like Google Reader.

But are these new features and changes enough to get a non-Digg user to become one, along with making current Digg users spend more time on the site? I'm not so sure about that. At its core, Digg v4 is still the same beast as the site that came before it. Even with the addition of a more social news browsing experience, the site has seemingly not solved the problem of how to get users wanting to come back to the site several times a day, versus going somewhere else. To some degree, its new social import tools help with this, but the question remains whether people think they'll get a better experience on Digg versus the ever-growing content-sharing meccas that are Facebook and Twitter.

To give the new Digg a spin, you can either wait for it to be released, or you can sign up to test it on this page.