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Big changes ahead for Deja News

Pioneer newsgroup aggregator Deja News prepares to announce sweeping changes to its services, including the addition of a user ratings feature, e-commerce offerings, and even a name change.

Pioneer newsgroup aggregator Deja News is preparing to announce sweeping changes to its services, including the addition of a user ratings feature, e-commerce offerings, and even a name change.

Company executives declined comment except to say the changes are coming "soon," probably within a month. But a beta version of the changes already exists online.

The site, which launched in May 1995, already has evolved from its beginnings as a searchable clearinghouse of online discussion forums. In June 1998, the site was relaunched with a face-lift that put its content into categories similar to those found on portals, moving away from its roots as simply a research tool.

Under its chief executive, Tom Phillips, the former head of Disney's ESPN Internet Ventures who joined Deja News in December 1998, the company is gearing up to make a solid play in the mainstream community market.

Among the upcoming changes, the company appears to be shortening its name to Deja.com. The beta version, which was obtained by CNET News.com, reads: "Welcome to the beta version of Deja.com. We're introducing a number of new features, including Deja Ratings, to enable users to share their opinions on a wide range of products, services, topics, and people."

In addition, a message posted to "www.deja.com" says, "Something BIG is about to happen...It's almost ready. So keep checking back." The site links back to the Deja News site.

Deja News, which currently dubs itself "the discussion network," is being redubbed "the people-powered information exchange," according to the sites.

With its moves, Deja News is working its way further into the crowded community site space, where it faces competition from traditional community sites such as Lycos's Tripod, TheGlobe.com, and GeoCities, which is in the process of being acquired by Yahoo. In addition, media firms are beginning to jump into the community market. For example, Time Warner launched its AcmeCity community site in January; the site allows users to create home pages with images from its animation, television, movie, and music properties.

Although Deja News is a Web veteran and has offered a unique service with its searchable listings of Usenet newsgroup postings, it faces a daunting task in trying to become more of a mainstream consumer brand, as its upcoming changes indicate. For one, portal sites with tremendous reach and name recognition such as Yahoo have active message boards of their own that attract users who also take advantage of services such as free email, e-commerce, instant messaging, and the like.

Also, with large offline media firms such as Time Warner and Disney getting into online communities, smaller companies such as Deja News face a great challenge in trying to compete with their abundant marketing muscle, deep pockets, and opportunities for cross-media promotion.

The ratings system, which Deja News already is touting on its current site, will allow users to "get (and give!) a quick take on hundreds of products, services, places, and people, such as movies, books, CDs, computers, ISPs, vacation destinations, presidential candidates...and dog breeds," according to the beta.

"Ratings consist of a composite score--based on how users rated the item on four criteria--and the comments raters submit," it continues. Users can compare the product to others; for example, the beta compares users' ratings of pit bulls, and the "compare to others" feature lets users see how that breed's rating stacks up to ratings for beagles, Basset hounds, and dozens of other breeds in terms of friendliness, trainability, loyalty, and the like.

For now, a preview of the ratings service on the Deja News site asks users to submit ratings on an array of products and services and then asks for demographic information such as a name, email address, and location for the user to submit comments and enter a contest. The site says users' comments will be posted when the service launches.

From the ratings, users also can click over to make a purchase of the item. They can choose from a "Buy New" option, which takes them to merchants' sites, or they can choose "Buy Used" to "where Deja.com users are most likely to be selling the items in question, or related items," the beta says. With this feature, Deja News appears to be taking aim at online auction sites such as eBay, which draw tremendous audiences of users looking to buy or sell their property to other private citizens online.

The site's "Dicussions" area lets users "search across, read, and participate in discussions on more than 60,000 subjects," the beta says.

"You can find discussions by either searching or browsing. Browsing through the subject home pages, click on the discussions tab to scan a list of all relevant discussions," says the beta, showing a page with listings that will "show you the forums in which people are discussing your subject most, and it'll show you a list of messages from any of thousands of forums in which people have mentioned your search term in the last few days."

Users also can post messages to a given thread, and if they sign up for a service dubbed "Deja Tracker," the firm will alert the users when someone responds. These features build on Deja News's current offerings.

The beta also shows another redesign of the site so the discussions, ratings, and community all get play on the front page. A right-side navigation frame also was added, and the navigation features across the top were replaced by the search box and an example of the ratings feature.

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