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Yahoo, Google wrestle to sell changes

Obama and McCain aren't the only ones trying to lobbying for change. But Yahoo and Google are running into resistance.

Even with careful testing and an ambition to improve features, it's hard to make changes at a big Web site.

Recent revamps at Yahoo and Google, for example, have riled some of their users. Google updated its iGoogle customized home page service, adding a left-hand navigation bar and a larger "canvas view" for applications, and Yahoo added a new centralized profile page that mimics some Facebook features and revamped the Flickr page to shed more light on the photo-sharing site's social activity. Those changes triggered complaints that already had begun pouring in after Yahoo began testing a new home page.

Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. Stephen Shankland/CNET News.com

"How can I be rid of this ugly piece of crap?" asked one forum user about the iGoogle overhaul. "Google has decided to unilaterally change the layout of my page. If I can't find a hack or a Greasemonkey script to undo this, good-bye Google, hello Yahoo!"

The comment reveals not only that changes are unwelcome, but that a feeling of powerlessness amplifies the problem. People who've invested a lot of time into their Web presence clearly feel some ownership not only of their data, but of the platform on which it's presented.

But here's the rub: the Web is changing, and companies that provide services must change, too. It can be difficult for people who must grapple with that change, but Internet companies that don't adapt can wither and die. On the Web, stasis isn't bliss.

And look at some of the pains that can result when companies don't change fast enough. Arguably the social-networking innovation that took place at MySpace and Facebook a few years ago should have happened at sites that already had a giant socially connected membership.

Instead, because Yahoo didn't change fast enough, people have to worry about maintaining multiple incompatible profiles and contact networks. Even if one particular service doesn't change, the Internet as a whole does, and it's no good being left in a stagnant backwater.

Much of the iGoogle vitriol is chronicled at the 10 Zen Monkeys site--including a link to the Greasemonkey script that did in fact appear and comments from people who posted Google employee e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

Thousands of comments have poured in on Flickr forums, too. Yahoo wanted Flickr to show its members community features such as comments and responses discussing photos, but one common complaint for people who already know about that feature is new difficulties distinguishing their own comments from others'.

Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Stephen Shankland/CNET News.com

And Yahoo took a contrite tone in explaining some of its profile changes, such as the fact that older profile information isn't imported. "We want to apologize straight away for not being more proactive in communicating in advance that we were making changes to our profiles...We also know lots of you worked hard on your old profiles and want your data. If you feel like you're missing data, we've saved a copy of your old profile (and alias) and our Customer Care team can retrieve this information. You won't, however, be able to revert back to your old profile format, but you will be able to get any data that you think is missing," Yahoo Community Manager Melissa Daniels said in a blog post.

In its comment to me about this matter, Yahoo tried to be delicate, but its message boils down to this: The Web is evolving, and Yahoo is evolving along with it in an attempt to appeal to more customers. You'll be consulted, but you'd better get used to it.

Here's the polite version: "As the Web matures, people's needs are evolving and Yahoo is constantly striving to meet the changing needs of consumers. Our recent changes are intended to help users more easily find out what's happening with the people who matter most to them. We recognize that change can be difficult, and not every person will like every change, but we truly value all feedback and strive to keep consumers at the heart of our product development process. Evolving and changing our products helps Yahoo to continuously deliver the best online user experience."

Don't freeze up
But here's the way I see it: Should these companies freeze Web site designs? Of course not. I don't want Yahoo.com circa 2003 back, much less the 1998 version.

I know that's an oversimplification, but the trouble is that it's not financially feasible for companies to maintain multiple incarnations of their sites, so contented people are frog-marched to a new design. Unusual cases where old designs are preserved, as with Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, are the exceptions that prove the rule.

New doesn't necessarily mean better, of course, and certainly fads or ill-advised management whims can trigger counterproductive redesigns. But user testing, careful measurement, and warnings to users ought to be able to defuse some of the troubles, and responding to feedback can help.

Of course some people will never like the new look. Reading inflamed comments about Web site redesigns, I'm reminded of a Los Alamos National Laboratory manager I once spoke with who'd been involved in various attempts to reorganize the lab's thousands of employees: he saw the organization as similar to a living organism, and any change triggered a rejection response like that from the antibodies in a human being's immune system.

What annoys me is the number of people who see other complaints and assume everyone agrees with them. Sure, there are more than 3,700 comments about the Flickr home page change, many of them critical, but rarely do people take time to remark when something new is better.

Worse are those who assume just because they weren't consulted, nobody was. In contrast, Google said, its iGoogle design incorporated changes from testers' comments.

"We're constantly thinking about how to improve our products for our users. Then, we take our ideas, prototype them, and put them through a vigorous set of usability tests and experiments to make sure we are doing the right thing for users. The iGoogle features we launched yesterday went through this exact process, and we've made changes along the way based on feedback from users and developers," Jessica Ewing, iGoogle group product manager, said in a statement.

One such change was a narrower left-hand navigation pane on iGoogle. Maybe that accommodation wasn't enough for those who don't want it at all, but it's naive to assume Google steamrolled over objections during its months-long switch to the new design.

I'm glad people feel empowered enough to squeal when they don't like change--it beats complacency and passivity by a mile, and it can help companies do what's best. Yes, change is a pain, but in balance it's unavoidable when it comes to something as fast-growing, social, and adaptable as the Internet.