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Google or Yahoo, Naver's Identity Crisis Deepens
Korea's top portal losing its edge?
Jean K. Min (jean)     Print Article 
Published 2009-07-22 11:36 (KST)   
This article is lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
Screen capture of Naver's Opencast main page
©2009 NHN
The giant sucking sound of Naver guzzling down near 70 percent of the Korean Web traffic is fading out this summer but Naver seems to be paying the price of "not being evil" if a newly released mid-term tally is to be believed.

Nate, the perennial third player in the Korean portal business has taken over Naver this summer in the news service segment according to a research by Korean Click, a Seoul based Web rating agency. Nate news logged 8,626,364 unique visitors in the first week of July surpassing Naver news (8,547,703), Korean Click said. But it still trails Media Daum, which topped the survey by attracting over 12 million unique visitors in the same period.

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Officially, NHN -- Naver's parent company -- does not seem to consider it an issue though. When it unveiled Newscast and Opencast this January, NHN promised to turn the site from a traffic center to a traffic distributor, redirecting search queries and news traffic to other dedicated sites. The current waning of the traffic has been predicted, or even intended, NHN says, as it was trying hard to deflect a growing suspicion that the Korea's top portal is enjoying an unwarranted influence by wielding its formidable political clout.

Since Naver started to forward the news traffic, some 40 news sites invited to edit their news links for the Newscast page saw their traffic doubled or even tripled, acing several Korean top site rankings. Naver is ready to take back the traffic forwarding, however, on a short notice from any affiliated news site. When the Web site of Chosun.com crashed on July 7 after failing to fend off a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, Naver indeed come to their rescue by re-routing the news traffic back to its servers.

The rise of Nate news, however, cannot be simply attributed to the introduction of Newscast, whose beneficiaries Naver may scoff at as a lucky picker of an easy windfall. Aside from the relative decline of Naver, Nate news seems to have touched upon some soft spots of Korean online news surfers.

Though many believe that people read news to look for new information, news reading is largely out of habits, a daily ritual to be reminded that they still belong to the society. In a highly competitive society such as Korea where people are driven by the permanent anxiety that they might be left behind alone in the dark, excluded from the top conversations of the peers, the Web's amazing feature that allows readers to track the "most-talked-about topics" is even more pronounced. That is exactly what Nate news has delivered to its readers.

By sharpening its aging Web 2.0 applications as well as infusing them with some new features that track the real time surfing pattern of its news readers from multiple angles, Nate news was reborn as the most interesting place for the Korean news readers to get engaged in the day셲 top discussions. On the other hand, Naver was struggling to emulate such features as it displaced its main news box with the Newscast.

Opencast, Naver's another attempt at replicating the Newscast model with the participation of bloggers is not taking off either. Naver sent invitations to some 2000 bloggers late last year to beta test Opencast, but the number of Opencasters has since dwindled to 1,140 after six months in operation, before it picked up slightly.

The idea behind Opencast is that by randomly exposing several thousands of cast boards edited by bloggers every day, Naver would be able to eliminate the controversial intervention of the staff editors for good, protecting itself from the repeated attack on its "arbitrary and biased editorial process". However, even Naver's mighty traffic was not good enough to satisfy the thirst for page views of many top bloggers, as they were getting barely over several hundred clicks after the bulk of traffic was distributed over 2000 cast boards in an egalitarian fashion.

Planet Size Brain, the author's blog, was once linked to the Opencast main page for about half a day but it attracted less than a couple of hundreds clicks. Opencast is going nowhere serving neither Opencasters or Naver itself.

The Web might be an infinite space where every one would find their own nesting ground, but the attention of the audience is a scarce resource limited by the number of total human eyeballs. The lessons of Economics 101 is that scarcity is the mother of all economic values. Naver should have installed an artificial scarcity in Opencast, which would inevitably invite some form of human editorial intervention.

No wonder Naver announced in early July that they would cap the number of rolling cast boards to 10 to 30 for every 24 hours. Naver will even reintroduce '36.5C' its own cast board edited by the internal staff, backpedaling to the old days of top-down editorial intervention.

Naver is an unique portal optimized for the Korean tastes. It's a hybrid between a search engine and a news portal, a chimera between Google and Yahoo. The dilemmas it is experiencing now are happening because it is oscillating wildly between a search engine and a news portal.

In doing so, Naver seems to be neither satisfying the Koreans hungry for common topics nor achieving its goal of not being evil. Naver's challenge would be to identify a sweet spot somewhere along the conundrum of two conflicting ends.

*For more musing on Korean tech issues and memosphere please visit my blog; Planet Size Brain (link: http://planetsizebrain.tistory.com)
©2009 OhmyNews

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