You must think I’m a future teller! Well, I’m not but I can still predict the future of websites in the near future based on the history of websites and the current trends. So, it will be worthwile to have a look at both before discussing the future of websites. The rule of thumb, however, is that evolution of website trends depends on evolution in technology.
Three to four decades back, the only businesses we knew were those in our locality or those that could reach out to us via newspapers, TV and radio. The print and electronic media gave businesses the ability to reach out to a much greater audience than ever before. It wasn’t late before the need to let people order products from the comfort of their homes was felt. It was then that home shopping via the medium of television came by. However, advertising on TV was kinda expensive but an alternative arrived only with the surge in web use- the surge that came in 1993 after the World Wide Web was declared free for use by everyone and the Mosaic browser was developed.
It was then that the era of websites dawned, websites loaded with rich multimedia content- images, audio and video, colorful content and a user-friendly graphical UI (user interface). Formerly, net use was limited to text only and websites were more of a bunch of plain-text information. However, even after the graphical avatar of the Web was born, the target audiences were still at the receiving end and there were little or no provisions to know how the people felt about the web services being provided. The only means to get feedback was possibly e-mail which was rendered ineffective for huge number of customers because of spam!
From 1993 to 1998, the Web remained centered around Search Engines, the major players being:
• Excite — 1993
• Yahoo! — 1994
• Web Crawler — 1994
• Lycos — 1994
• Infoseek — 1995
• AltaVista — 1995
• Inktomi — 1996
• Ask Jeeves — 1997
• Google — 1997
• MSN Search — 1998
Shorty after, the need was felt for websites that you could ‘talk to’ and websites that could let you ‘talk to each other’- technically, interactive social media. That was when Web 2.0 was born. Websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Digg, Blogger, etc. are part of the Web 2.0 revolution. On a Web 2.0 site, most of the content is user-generated. These websites have changed the way we communicate with each other. The popularity of social media like Facebook and Twitter encouraged developers to create applications for these websites. Consider, for example, the most popular game on the Web- Farmville. Statistics say that 500 million acres of farmland have been farmed on Farmville in the first 15 months and there are 930 million acres of actual farmland in the US (source: http://tinyurl.com/25v6qox)! If the trend continues to rise at the same pace, the area under virtual farmland will exceed the real farmland in the US in a year.
The major marketing trend till now has been social ads and newsletters coupled with surveys and customer personalization. With Facebook being the prime logging in service and home page of millions of people, companies could actually track the interests of potential customers and deliver relevant ads. However, with more and more people marking promotional e-mails as junk and suspecting social ads as scams or as misleading, newer marketing strategies are needed for the future and they’re evolving.
The future belongs to innovation- the focus has shifted from design and development to innovative thinking. The last few months in particular have seen a rise in appreciation of innovation. Take the huge popularity of location-based apps- FourSquare, followed by Facebook places and so on. This is an important example of how hardware affects software. Another example is the shift from low-quality media on websites to high-resolution interactive graphics. With more and more people coming under the broadband spectrum, websites are going for rich, high-resolution graphics which in turn will make websites more appealing to customers. Many major websites like the BBC already have an option to choose between a high-graphics and a low-graphics site.
On-the-go social networking, of which location-based-apps are a part have gained relevance only because of a wide range of social-networking enabled hand-held devices. In 2002 the first BlackBerry was released which was the first smartphone optimized for wireless email use, followed by Nokia N 95, Apple’s iPhone and so on. The smartphone revolution paved the way for development and widespread use of GPS and other location-based apps which have changed the way businesses interact with their customers. Now it is possible for businesses to target customers within their physical reach and announce special offers for customers who are currently within a diameter of, say, 2 kilometers. On FourSquare (the most popular location-based game) each ‘place’ has a ‘mayor’- i.e. the most frequent visitor and a privileged cuatomer. If someone replaces the mayor as the most frequent visitor, the business offers special discounts to the new mayor. The next major innovation truly depends on the next big advance in hardware technology to a great extent.
Not to forget that advances in software technology have created a spark in social media, in fact changed the way we perceived them. One example of this is the role of Flash in the success of YouTube, AJAX in Facebook and other hundreds of other websites where automatic updates are a major attraction and where.
We have seen Friendster replacing MySpace which in turn was replaced by Facebook as the most popular socializing site. However, analysts and experts do not see Facebook and Twitter falling from importance in the next few years at least. This is because Facebook is ever-changing! Two years back, when Facebook made major changes to its home page and user interface, people reacted to it sharply by launching an “Against Facebook’s new home page” campaign. Back then, it was irritating to people to adjust to new features often. But Facebook has been able to change the whole psyche of people as they’re now looking forward to new changes every day! And with a new look and new features every now and then, no one seems bored of Facebook; thanks also to games like Farmville and Mafia Wars that keep people interested. The philosophy of change has enabled Facebook to survive! Not only that, Facebook has a much wider network than MySpace ever had. With Facebook’s exclusive look and feel, other socializing sites have been rendered useless. Instead of trying to build the next big socializing site, focus has now shifted on how to reach potential customers via Facebook and Twitter. Almost every website now features Facebook/Twitter/Digg plugins and almost every medium to big business has a Facebook page! In fact, the trend had begun three years back itself. I remember using a Firefox add-on called Yonoo! which allows you to login to Facebook, Twitter, Gtalk, Yahoo! Messenger, MySpace, etc. at the same time but did not work very well back then, probably because it was a beta. The focus is likely to remain more on integrating with Facebook and other socializing sites than on replacing them.
In spite of all the fact that if Facebook were a country it would be the third most populated country in the world (source: http://tinyurl.com/248u8ll ), the possibility that Facebook may be replaced by another socializing site cannot be ruled out completely. There have been major attacks on Facebook’s sovereignty, the most lethal being the KoobFace virus. But interestingly, the tactic failed and now everyone in a modern family has a Facebook account, including pets at times! A group of New York University computer science students made the code of their anti-Facebook site, Diaspora, open source on September 15th, 2010. The attempt to build a competitor of Facebook comes in the wake of widespread criticism of Facebook’s privacy policies. The home page of the Diaspora project describes it as “The privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all, open source social network”. The loopholes left unplugged by Facebook may actually pave the way for the next mega social network. Or, it may end up being bought by Facebook itself !
The Diaspora story also makes one wonder if public funding is going to be the next big trend- yes, Diaspora is publicly funded. The group of students initially wanted to raise $10,000 for their summer project but the widespread interest in the project can be judged from the fact that the donations have already crossed $100,000 with Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) as one of the contributors!
However, the fact remains that Facebook owes its great ad revenue to the compromise in privacy! The more user information you provide companies with, the greater is the ad revenue. And the greater the ad-revenue, the better is the service you’ll get. Going by the same logic, I don’t see Diaspora going too far- not at least as far as Facebook, not at least in the next few years!
I’ve said earlier that the future belongs to innovation. It does so more than ever before. The future will feed on innovation more vigorously than it ever did. Although the local Google and Orkut logos are updated on every major occasion and regional festivals, the last two weeks have seen the craziest animated logos- especially the dancing bubbles and the Google Gravity project. After Google launched Google Instant, the whole cyber world will be seen going Instant. Google Instant provides live search suggestions and without even hitting the “Enter” key, your search results appear on the screen. Very shortly after Google built Google Instant, a Stanford University student Feross Aboukhadijeh built YouTube Instant- the fastest way to search YouTube ‘instantly’! The site ytinstant has gone viral (if you don’t yet understand the word viral, it is coming up next) without advertisement or effort and interestingly, Feross was hired by the YouTube CEO via Twitter the very next day! So, the message is clear- businesses want you to innovate!
Finally, the most recent trend in marketing that is going to stay for quite sometime is that of viral videos. With all the old marketing strategies showing signs of saturation the only thing that is going to survive is innovation again. Given the fact that everyone has pop-up blockers, spam filters, ad-blockers and anti-malware software, the marketing strategies in place today are becoming obsolete. They were good enough for naïve users but now users are more enlightened- they know how to differentiate misleading links from genuine ones, how to tell ads and real links apart and often end up suspecting ads that may be genuinely good as phishing scams. The newest strategy is to create an innovative, catchy video that has the quality of getting popular overnight. People hate listening to salesmen over the phone or watching plain directed ads. Viral videos are ads but much less obvious. In fact, the viral video is usually an intelligent or funny depiction of some concept which later relates to the brand name, again in an intelligent way. Some of the best examples of viral videos are:
- Vodafone’s ZooZoo videos
- Old Spice’s “towel-clad Isaiah Mustafa” ad campaign
- Levi Strauss’s “guys back-flipping into jeans” ad campaign
- Kit Kat’s dancing squirrels
The trend is being followed religiously and you can find them all over Facebook and YouTube. Trends like this are going to stay for a while because such marketing strategies do deliver and will continue to. They have done away with dumb, irritating TV commercials or annoying pop-ups. On the contrary, people watch these videos over and over again, they circulate them for free and now that social media has made embedding so much easier, this will be the preferred marketing scheme for big businesses. For small and medium businesses and entrepreneurs, however, the older trends will stay.
It needs to be noted at the end that these predictions are for the near future. Any new advance in software or hardware may cause the focus to shift elsewhere. Also, the prediction that high-resolution media websites are going to rule the next era of broadband depends greatly on the number of new Internet users coming under the broadband spectrum which is not very promising in most of the countries. But the trend is catching on with the focus shifting from compressed pictures and fast-loading pages to high-graphics websites that provide a much better visuals and a more high-tech user experience.