Why leave your 'marks online?

A bevy of companies wants you to move your bookmarks from your browser to the Web, but it's not clear how you'd benefit.

Published March 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

My 52 bookmarks sit in a jumble in my browser, a list of semiorganized chaos, but I'm not complaining. Folders slow me down, e-mail news alerts have supplanted some of my surfing and sites that I've stumbled across only to lose track of never seem to be more than a quick search away. I use my bookmarks, but they're not the be-all and end-all of my surfing experience.

Of course, a bevy of start-ups wants to change all that. Following in the path of Web-based services like Hotmail and Netscape's Calendar, companies like Blink, Backflip (which is a Salon partner), Hotlinks and scores of others are trying to entice you to move your bookmarks to the Web. For doing so, you'll get "anytime, anywhere access" (for all that surfing you do in Internet cafes), the ability to share links with your friends or colleagues and, in some cases, extras like tools to search your bookmarks or automatically file them by category. The companies, in turn, will get to see your favorite sites -- information that's valuable to advertisers and to the sites you bookmark. At least two of the bookmark-storing sites also want to aggregate all those links into a Yahoo-like directory.

But these sites "need to grow really big really fast," says Tim Hickman, CEO of Backflip; and it's hard to imagine how they will attract users. You don't hear many complaints from people unhappy with storing their bookmarks in a browser. And the supposed enticements of Web-based bookmarks, like the filing and searching options, would have to work perfectly (they don't) to improve on the speed and ease of a drop-down browser-based list, or even a search engine. When it takes longer to find a link I bookmarked on a few of these sites than it does to search and find it from Google, it's tough to see the value of Web-based bookmarking -- extras included.

Of course, it's much too early to write off any of these companies; the oldest ones just celebrated their first anniversaries and executives at some well-funded start-ups like Hotlinks and Clickmarks claim as many as 300,000 users, with more on the way. And as people start saving not just home page URLs but documents they want to look at later, the sites' power to organize and provide universal access to bookmarks will grow in importance, says Jonathan Abrams, CEO of Hotlinks and a former Netscape engineer.

"Bookmarks are even more important than phone numbers," says Abrams. "Web addresses are harder to remember."

That may be true. But even if you hold onto links to documents that may be taken down, and even if the number of bookmarks you store is as fat as your monthly rent, it's tough to envision a day when lost bookmarks will cause as much despair as a missing little black book, or PDA. Take the reporter I met who boasted of having Henry Kissinger's home phone number. He never called the man, waiting instead for the perfect moment when he just had to have a quote, but he protected the number like a Picasso. Kissinger's e-mail address might be equally valued, but a link to his home page? I doubt it.

"Bookmarks just aren't that compelling," says Paul Hagen, an analyst with Forrester Research. "The idea of moving them to the Web falls in line with e-mail, calendaring and phone information, which have all moved to the Web in some capacity, but to me, those moves make more sense."

These days, it's easier than ever to get back to the sites you once found, says Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch. Technologies like RealNames let you type keywords directly into a browser, old search engines like Alta Vista have improved and, Sullivan adds, new search algorithms like those employed by Google have upped the ante even further.

"Back in 1994 or 1995, you had to bookmark everything you found because the search engines didn't work very well," Sullivan says. "That's no longer the case." As a result, people don't bookmark like they used to. Instead, they go back to where they located the page in the first place -- the search engines. "It's like calling information because you know you can," he says.

Statistics, however, show that bookmarks are popular. According to a survey by market research firm NFO Interactive, 74 percent of the nation's 105 million regular Web surfers use bookmarks. Savvy users, people who have used the Internet regularly for at least six months, list an average of 84 bookmarks, according to a survey commissioned by Backflip. That seems like a lot to me, but I save the text of most of the articles I find on the Web.

Maybe I'd quit that habit if automatic filing worked as well. But it doesn't. I tried five services: Blink, Hotlinks, Clickmarks, Backflip and BookmarkSync. My hopes were high, but I ended up largely unimpressed.

Here's how the sites work: You fill in a registration form with your e-mail, log-in name and password. The sites (BookmarkSync excepted -- but more on that later) help you import your bookmarks file to their servers. You could attach this file to e-mail and send it, say, from your work computer to your home computer, but that's beside the point. Let's talk importing. Hotlinks, Blink and Clickmarks successfully managed the transfer, as did Backflip, sort of. Backflip took all the bookmarks from my browser, but I had also clicked on the site's automatic categorization feature. Perfect, I thought at the time: My jumbled list will end up filed, organized, clean.

Wrong. The site's engine examines the text of bookmarked links, but not the titles. Hickman considers textual analysis the site's best feature, but it sure didn't work for me. Instead of "news" or "miscellaneous," for example, Backflip's technology placed Profnet, a database of experts, and the satire-stuffed Onion, which calls itself "America's Finest News Source," in "Money and Finance."

Hickman wasn't surprised when I told him about this. "It only works 70 to 85 percent of the time," said the fair-haired executive, who, like Abrams, was formerly at Netscape. I didn't mention that at that rate, Backflip's average user, who Hickman says maintains 165 bookmarks, would end up with at least 15 miscategorizations, which would take him or her a good half an hour to sort out. I, for one, would be much happier sticking with my browser.

Hotlinks, Blink and Clickmarks didn't do much to change my mind. Their filing systems resembled the tree-and-branch design of my bookmark editor, but didn't work nearly as well. On my browser, files can be moved by dragging and dropping them in place. On these sites, I had to select the link I wanted to move, click the move button, wait for a refreshed page, click the folder I wanted to put it in, wait again for a new page, click another move button and then -- after another wait -- voil`, the bookmark sat where I wanted it to go. Moving filing cabinets would have been more fun.

The search functions did, miraculously, offer some relief. On Backflip, I searched on "exploitation" and "theft" -- words found in the body of an especially funny story I had saved from the Onion -- and the site turned up the piece right away. Clickmarks, Hotlinks and Blink also managed to find the pages I was hunting for, but only when I knew the URL or the page's title as it appeared in my bookmarks. But I don't want to have to remember that stuff. The sites' search function seemed only marginally more useful than a search engine.

Of course, that's exactly what these three sites are trying to become. Hotlinks, Blink and others want your preferences so they can then use them to build a directory like Yahoo's.

"To gather all this information and not turn into a navigation system would be crazy," says Hotlinks' Abrahms. Or, if you subscribe to Sullivan's point of view, these companies are "building a search engine without having to do the work." In any case, the results are still quite sketchy. Each site's directory has a few million links, but spread across multiple categories there's little worth looking at. Yahoo's entertainment section has more subcategories, for example, than Blink has entertainment links.

Eventually, says Sullivan of Search Engine Watch, these collective bookmarking sites may help people find "gems" -- quirky sites that search-engine crawlers might miss but that users turn up. But, he adds, to compete with other directories, these sites must persuade millions of people not only to store their bookmarks online but also to share them.

Hotlinks, Blink and Clickmarks have embraced this task with abandon. All three make sharing your links the default setting when you first sign on, and they promote the idea like mad: "Unleash the power of your bookmarks," Blink's home page reads; "share your links," reads another's. Meanwhile, other people's bookmarks are never more than a click or two away.

Most of these sites do promise to keep your personal information separate from your links, and never to sell such information. But, according to Blink's terms of service, my bookmarks became its property when I agreed to join; Blink now has the "royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable" right to publish my bookmarks however it sees fit. Luckily, there was nothing in there I'm ashamed of, because Blink also reserved the right to share my personal information with third parties if such sharing "protect[ed] the rights of Blink." I'm not sure what would qualify as a rights-protecting excuse, but the very idea of it scares me.

Thankfully, the other sites took fewer liberties. Backflip is in fact an exception to the rule. Hickman says the company is more focused on friend-to-friend sharing than stranger-to-many, adding that a search engine is not in the company's plans. But even Backflip can't solve the real problem here: the Web.

Ultimately, these businesses are built on the premise that anything good is better online. But my browser bookmarks work just fine, and as I wait for refreshed page after refreshed page, it's not easy to recognize the advantages of Web-based bookmarking. That's why the dark horse of these companies could be BookmarkSync. The New York firm has only 20,000 users, but it just gained its first infusion of venture capital and has an interesting twist on the Web-mark idea: software.

You download the free program, and BookmarkSync whisks your bookmarks to the Web while keeping you with your browser, says Michael Berneis, BookmarkSync's president. When you add a bookmark to your browser, the software automatically adds it to your own page on the Web. You can access the page, like the other services, with a log-in and a password. But you don't have to.

"The idea is that people don't have to change their user behavior at all," says Berneis. "It's a form of backup, a secondary form of access and means of transfer."

It sounded great -- until I tried it. When I went to the site, the file wouldn't download, and Berneis couldn't tell me what the problem was.

So once again, I'm back with my browser. And once again, I'm not complaining.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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