September 05, 2009

Ev and Biz Discuss Early Days of Blogger After 10th Anniversary

Today, the Web is lit up with reports of vulnerabilities in the geeky Web blogging platform, WordPress. Meanwhile, quietly, its predecessor, sporting 300 million active readers (measured on a 30-day basis), with nearly 400 million words added per day, Blogger, the platform I use, continues to chug away. Often seen as a blogging platform for the less technical Web user, Blogger, recently achieved its 10th anniversary, and invited its founders back to the fold to commemorate the milestone - including Evan Williams and Biz Stone, now better known for their work on Twitter, which has introduced a new form of Web communication to the world, commonly known as microblogging.

On a panel held this Tuesday at the San Francisco office of Google, who owns Blogger after its 2003 acquisition from Pyra Labs, the pair, along with a pair of Blogger representatives, and a few power users of the platform (myself included), looked back on the previous decade and how the world has changed over the years.

When Pyra Labs launched Blogger as a side-project, it was widely perceived that bloggers were "crazy", Ev said. "Who are you to think anybody cares about what you have to say?" he recounted. "It was blasphemy in a lot of ways, and now it is an accepted thing. All that has happened and created freedom of speech in areas and countries that never had them. What now?"

Not surprisingly, the same comments about "who cares" are now often thrown at those pushing their status updates through Twitter and Facebook multiple times a day. While others had doubts, Ev, Biz and others saw opportunity.

"It is just a realization of the potential of the Web - democratized media where everybody has a voice," Ev said Tuesday. "Like most mediums, it takes a while to figure out what to do with them. For years, technically anybody could put things on the Web, but we didn't know what the form was."

Ev's idea is something that is standard practice now, but broke the mold of publishing that had preceded it by decades, if not centuries. "The newest stuff goes to the top, and it doesn't need to fill a page," he recounted. "Now, we work at Twitter, and it is an extension of the same thing. It is very complementary to Blogger and the Web in general."

According to stats released by Blogger this week, the number of active contributors, numbering in the millions, has more than doubled in the last two years, and about a quarter trillion words have been written on Blogger since it launched in 1999. This move is a fulfillment of the vision seen by Ev, and Biz, who worked with Xanga and Pyra Labs before co-founding Twitter.

Biz, taking a longer-term view said, "Over the last ten years, it's like we have been watching a shift in how people communicate. They are moving into new realms, and Blogger was at the beginning of this." He added, "What we are all doing is experimenting. We are finding new ways to add nuance. I have an optimistic view of it, in that we are trying something new. If a user pisses off enough people, it's not going to work."

While Biz and Ev may have been ahead of the game in creating and promoting Blogger (and now Twitter), they don't consider themselves visionaries, only that they were able to capitalize on a new medium, seizing trends and making them easier to achieve.

"A year or two in (to working at Pyra Labs), we said blogging was going to be a big deal," said Ev. "People could publish to the Web whenever they wanted."

Ten years in, the team at Google sees that Blogger is more than just a publishing platform, but also, a great way for them to expand the visibility and evangelize the ever-increasing family of Google products. Rick Klau, product manager for Blogger, who arrived at Google following the FeedBurner acquisition, explained:

"We are a big distribution platform for a lot of other Google products," Rick said. "The minute something is launched for Blogger, you can scale to millions of users and hundreds of millions of interactions, per day. If you think narrowly of Blogger as a publishing platform for individuals, how can we make it easier to fix the other pieces of the puzzle?"

The early days of Blogger ran into some of the same perception issues many people have around Twitter, particularly when it comes to the level of spam on the service. But the Google team has been working to dramatically lower the amount of junk blogs (or 'splogs') on Blogger.

"If you dial back the clock two to three years, Blogspot had a lot of spam," Rick said. "That could have limited adoption, or contributed to people moving. We talk every week at our team meetings, what percentage of page views do we believe to spam in the last seven days. That's in the low single digits now, and has consistently gone down."

Amusingly, prior to Google's acquisition of Blogger, Biz and Ev pioneered the integration of AdSense on all blogs on the service, but on Tuesday, they admitted they actually made more money from customers paying to opt out of ads than they ever did from ad revenue. Now, of course, Blogger has introduced a "Monetize" tab, so users can easily integrate AdSense and make money for Google, which Rick Klau said led to adoption that wasn't just "hockey stick" growth, but like "a cliff".

With time, blogs became less about egos, or even in driving ad dollars, but instead, play a role much like journalism, where many are taken very seriously, Ev observed.

"The tone changed from this being drivel from egocentric people, to something being powerful to share their voice with the world," Ev said. Everything would have been surprising to view it from the 1999-2000 perspective. We started Blogger as a side project, which we wanted to draw attention to our real product. It took me a year to shake that notion and kill the other product. The idea that it would shape the lives of millions of people was out of the realm of possibility. There were more people able to publish more things more quickly, which was very powerful."

This empowerment of the user led to a number of small changes at Blogger, including one where Biz said they altered buttons to say "I Power Blogger" from the previous "Powered By Blogger".

"We realized that it's not your technology making this happen, but everyone using it and the decisions you are making. It's doing its own thing now," Biz said.

As I have said a few times, as much as we may enjoy the technology required to get our conversations and observations online, it is more about what is delivered than how it happens. Twitter, Blogger and all these tools are infrastructure, and often, the community can help drive a product as much as the product can drive the community. Ev and Biz look to have struck gold twice, and ten years in, despite fierce competition from Wordpress, TypePad and other services, Blogger continues to grow.

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