Milener says going after MySpace users is “definitely a strategic move for the company.” Users of other data-heavy sites, such as eBay and CNN.com, might also appreciate Browster’s simplified views of the core content of each page, Milener says, but the company focused on MySpace first because viral marketing proceeds faster there. “No two users of CNN.com know each other or can talk to each other,” Milener says. “But MySpace has a built-in communication system, including instant messaging and e-mail and blogs. If one person likes Browster they are highly likely to tell 10 friends – or are at least highly enabled to tell 10 friends.”
Browster works for any website, not just MySpace. But a coterie of other sites exist solely to “feed the MySpace beast,” as Pete Cashmore puts it in his popular technology blog, Mashable.com. Most of them, such as PimpMySpace, MySpaceEditor, and MySpaceLayouts, offer graphics and design tools that help MySpace users build distinctive profiles. The sites typically don’t charge for their services, subsisting instead on advertising. Another class of sites – media-sharing networks such as YouTube and Odeo – help users place video links or podcasts onto their MySpace profile pages; viewers or listeners are often directed back to the site hosting the content, which then earns advertising dollars.
But how long can MySpace sustain these peripheral businesses? Despite its growing user base, actual traffic at MySpace plateaued about four months ago. In October 2005, MySpace accounted for about 8 out of every 1,000 daily page views on the Web, according to the Web traffic-monitoring company Alexa; by April 2006, that figure had grown to 20 per 1,000. But since then, MySpace page views as a percentage of overall Internet traffic have been static or declining.
The leveling-off of traffic to the site could merely be a sign that MySpace’s main users – 16-to-24-year-olds – are on summer vacation. Or it could mean that MySpace has become so well known that it’s no longer the coolest hangout for teen trendsetters. Indeed, in the midst of MySpace’s plateau, the new social-networking site Bebo, which is aimed specifically at high-school and college students, has seen a doubling in traffic (to about 4 per 1,000 page views).
There’s one more reason MySpace may be a hazardous site to build a business: It can be an inhospitable place for outsiders offering services that draw directly from the MySpace database, for example, by mining profiles automatically. Consider the case of DatingAnyone.com, a site that notified MySpace members whenever a friend’s relationship status changed from “taken” to “single” or “dating.” The service won praise among technology bloggers as a clever and useful addition to MySpace. But in June, site-owner Jared Chandler received a letter from MySpace lawyers saying that the site violated MySpace’s terms of service by placing “an undue burden on the MySpace servers” and demanding that it be shut down; Chandler complied. A similar site, SingleStat.us, suffered a same fate in the same month.
In the end, developers and entrepreneurs who want to offer services to users of large sites may be better off working with companies such as eBay, which explicitly encourages third-party developers to build applications that interface with its inventory database (see “EBay: The OS for E-Commerce?”). “We want to build a platform for innovation,” says Eric Billingsley, senior director at eBay Research Labs. “We want third-party developers to develop [new applications] for us, and we allow them to profit from it.”