I have been thinking about personal profiles or personal branding on the web for a while. This is partially due to the fact that people may know the blog but not know the person behind the blog. With the various social media sites, there is confusion on who is only sharing an article and who actually wrote it. Again, the idea of identity rears its ugly head. So, it was interesting timing that we heard about the public release of About.me, its purchase by AOL a few days later, and I received a promotional email from Flavors.me at the same time. Because of the coincidence of events, I figured it was time to see what options people have to brand themselves on the web. In terms of basic personal branding sites there are 7 that I could find:
- about.me – It has analytics, free background images and a custom background image uploader. The UI is really simple to use, but the fonts do not seem to display cleanly all of the time.
- flavors.me – The free version has very sparse options but the premium version does have significantly more. Generally, the free layouts are OK and it has a custom background image uploader. The big problem here is that the UI is very difficult to use, to the point of frustration for me.
- card.ly – Card.ly is now called businesscard2.com. It is very business oriented and looks more like a business card/site generator. Given this change, it is not really a personal site, but it does have aggregation of various activity streams.
- Gravatar – It has no real design capabilities, and gives you a very raw personal site. Granted, they were going for the default avatar on the web and are expanding from there. One interesting note is that they provide several output formats like json, xml, vcard, and qr code.
- Retaggr – It has card and page displays, and uses gravatar if you have an account. There are a lot of predefined service links (i.e. twitter, etc) though many are old and outdated. The page layout and design changes are really difficult to use. The main benefit for this site is its ability to create a lifestream for you without any programming.
- Facebook profiles – These are not really designable pages. You quickly fill out information for the social network in order to find people and it gets displayed. So, these are definitely more of an info page than a personal site. Another issue with profiles is that if you are missing a type of activity (i.e. images) your profile looks odd due to missing sections or the appearance of gray boxes.
- Google Profiles – This is not a designable page at all. In typical Google style it has a fairly sparse design. The main benefits are that you can provide contact information and links to other services. Your Google Buzz stream (posts and Reader shares) will appear by default as well.
Even from my quick overview of several sites, you will probably realize that About.me is the clear leader in this space. Now, what does AOL purchasing About.me mean to the rest of these sites? First, there could be some consolidation or other acquisitions in the near future. Generally, there is a “rush” of acquisitions in a space where there was a first acquisition like this. The rush could occur over the course of the next year, so don’t expect to hear that any of the sites mentioned gets acquired before the end of this year. Second, it raises the bar for these types of sites. Will anyone get acquired if they do not have About.me’s ease of use or analytics? It is possible, but it is definitely harder when there is no clear differentiator or at least an equal competitor. There is also the problem of the pool of potential acquirers. Who would be willing to purchase one of these types of sites? Two typical names are Google and Facebook, but they already have profile products. Yahoo would be another possiblity, but they are trying to find their focus and probably would stay away from this type of site. AOL took itself out of the picture by acquiring About.me. Of the big players, that likely leaves only Microsoft and they are a possibility as they try to grow their online properties.
The last idea to look at is purpose of a purchase. If you look at the AOL and About.me deal, the analytics were a huge benefit. When you combine that with the ease of use of the design tools, you get a very nice, capable and measurable site. I would not be surprised if we hear that About.me will be used for personal profiles within AOL as well as company pages within the AOL network. The service could quickly be extended to allow for predefined widgets, like a tweet stream, or even custom widgets. Very little functionality would need to be added to make About.me capable of managing a group of pages like a typical web CMS. As you can see, AOL made an excellent purchase, and it will be interesting to watch how this all unfolds.
One purpose that is missing within all of the sites is identification. They all provide the ability to create some semblance of a personal brand, but what about identity? How difficult would it be to integrate OpenID into these sites? That way, you use just one site to manage all of your authentication needs, and it is your own personal site. Granted, this has been the goal of OpenID and the focus has been on gaining acceptance from larger sites like Google. OAuth does not fit very nicely into this model as it is more of a third party authentication mechanism (I apologize to the OAuth people for the gross simplification), though it could be made to work with some simple extensions.
One of the issues with personal branding or personal identity sites is that you would really want the site to be your one true identity. It should be easily linked with whatever social services you use, like Twitter or Facebook. The proliferation of profile information on different sites is just plain annoying. This does sound close to the goal of OAuth, but the identity portion is still missing. How do we know that this person is the same as an account on Twitter? OpenID and OAuth do not provide this type of capability. An interesting protocol that appeared back in the Spring of 2009 is webfinger. Webfinger does not provide any authentication information, just the concept of account discovery or having someplace to go to verify that robdiana on Twitter is the same person as robdiana on Google. If we could combine something like OpenID and OAuth with Webfinger within a personal branding site, we would have something really interesting. Currently, Facebook is not the answer and I doubt that they will open up the page design any more than what they have now. Besides one of the services above or another to be created later, Google is the most likely option as it has the authentication infrastructure and could combine profiles with Google Sites to become this type of service. As more people put their information online, they will eventually find the need to create their own personal site. The question is who will provide the services for them.