Can Yahoo! Fix the Buzz Problem?

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The social-news site Yahoo! Buzz lets readers submit articles, photos and videos that will be considered for placement on Yahoo!'s home page

Social-news sites like Digg, Mixx and Reddit promise to democratize the process of determining which news stories make popular headlines. Rather than relying on a small group of editors to decide what people should read, the sites let regular-joe readers cast their vote for worthy stories, then allow the most popular picks to bubble to the top. These sites have attracted huge followings — Digg is currently a Top 100 site with more than 20 million monthly visitors — but their dirty little secret is that their story selection process is a lot less egalitarian than it seems.

Although anyone can submit articles, pictures or videos to social-news sites, it is still the sites' most active members who disproportionately influence which posts wind up on the front page. According to Qliktech's Dugg Analyzer, a Web tool that analyzes traffic on Digg, about 60% of the stories currently deemed popular on Digg were first submitted by its 100 most active users — even though thousands of people submit stories to Digg every day. The skewing occurs in part because top users have an innately better understanding of which stories are likely to snare the popular imagination, but also because these users tend to vote en masse — they all vote for posts submitted by their friends, who also tend to be popular and prolific Diggers. As a result, this tightly knit clique of insiders regularly controls which stories rise to the top.

Yahoo! Buzz aims to change all that. The new social-news site from Yahoo! still lets the public vote, but it moderates the voting with old-fashioned editorial oversight. "Yahoo! Buzz is about finding the most relevant stories," says Tapan Bhat, a Yahoo! senior vice president. "Using voting as a measure by itself becomes completely biased." Instead, results on Yahoo! Buzz — which began accepting submissions from websites on Aug. 18 — also account for such metrics as how often people share a particular story by e-mail or search on related topics using the Yahoo! search engine. The final gatekeepers are the Yahoo! news editors, who can handpick stories that will appear on the Yahoo! home page — coveted placement that can generate more than a million page views per story.

Yahoo! Buzz's hybrid approach reduces the opportunity for cheating, which is rampant on sites like Digg. Typically, one person rallies his or her huge network of Digg friends to promote the same story — regardless of whether they have even read it. But the abuse goes beyond that: for example, a variety of "pay per Digg" operations, such as the now defunct site User/Submitter, pay up to 1,000 people to Digg a story in an effort to promote what is typically a commercial interest. Muhammad Saleem, 23, an Internet marketing consultant and currently the second most popular Digger, says, "I get offers daily." Top Diggers wield considerable influence, and Saleem, who spends about 2.5 hours a day on Digg, says he has been offered up to $2,000 to promote other people's posts but has never accepted payment. Many of these schemes have recently gone underground to avoid detection by the social-news sites, according to Rand Fishkin, CEO of the Internet marketing firm SEOmoz.

Jay Adelson, CEO of Digg, acknowledges that people "will go to incredible Herculean efforts to manipulate us." Digg has made a number of defensive tweaks to its site in the past years. One of the biggest changes prevents stories that get votes from the same group of people from bubbling up. But according to Saleem, groups of up to 1,000 people can still get away with it a few times before the Digg algorithm picks up on them. But, eventually, Saleem says, "Digg does find out."

One way Yahoo! Buzz prevents aggregate voting is by doing away with community features that are built in to Digg. For example, you can't add another Buzzer as your friend, like you can on Digg, which makes it harder to follow others' recommendations. Yahoo! Buzz also lacks the "shout" feature, which many Diggers use to let other users know what stories they are promoting. However, Buzzers who also use Yahoo! Messenger 9.0 (currently in beta) can now follow other members' Buzzes via their instant-messaging window.

For better or worse, Yahoo! Buzz has already proven to traffic much more mainstream stories than its rivals. While Reddit users often post quirky items — a member offered to chug a bottle of hot sauce on camera if 1,000 people voted his story popular — Buzz stories tend toward the more familiar celebrity, politics and hard-news pieces found on traditional news sites. "The charm of Digg is that you get so much content from these independent publishers who wouldn't otherwise have a voice," says top Digger Saleem.

Still, Yahoo! Buzz's system of checks and balances will likely keep the site from being co-opted by special interests. During the primary season, for example, ardent fans of Ron Paul nearly monopolized the politics sections of many social-news sites with posts that were of little interest to most non-Paul partisans. (Starting with the Democratic and Republican conventions, Digg is soliciting questions from members that it will then pose to Nancy Pelosi and other high-profile people.) Yahoo! Buzz, on the other hand, will more clearly reveal what ordinary users are talking about, says SEOmoz's Fishkin. And that could be the most valuable buzz of all.