Remember Rediff ?

Circa 1998-2000 A.D. the average engineer in India got on to the internet and checked news on Rediff on the Net every morning. And in the afternoon, and evening. During cricket matches, the annual budget, major events and mishaps, this activity turned up a notch further. If you were around then, you surely must remember Rediff and the sense of pride in the fact that we had a good homegrown version of Yahoo for India! What started in 1996 as 2 properties – and, soon evolved into, and became the staple of most early netizens of India.

Rediff - The site we grew up with
Rediff - The site we grew up with

Key to Rediff’s portal strategy was news. Its coverage was quite decent, and the fact that the newspapers either did not have their own sites, or were not well known, meant that this was the best source of updated news about India! Soon, the print edition of the news in the morning seemed stale to Rediff’s audience.  Rediff’s India Abroad service, acquired in 2001, catered to the the NRI crowd with special columns and coverage. Bollywood content, and cricket coverage and columnists kept the various content constituencies happy online. We were quite kicked about having a site catering to Indian audiences with Indian content. The fact that a lot of it arrived as-it-happened was the icing, and we were all Rediff fans for a while.

In 2000, Rediff was adjudged the best Indian portal by PCQuest. It also rolled out its instant messenger, RediffBol. Its mail service was reasonably popular; the messenger found some adoption as well, but never quite challenged Yahoo’s messenger in reach or brand image. Pursuing its attempts to become a major destination for the NRI audience, Rediff also bought ThinkIndia – a small service trying to become a top site for Indians abroad. 2001 and 2002 saw Rediff buy ValuCom, ApnaLoan, and release a whole slew on interest specific properties to cater to an ever increasing audience.  Partnerships with operators, and then Yahoo, saw Rediff grow in the mobile space and by 2004, it reported its first profitable quarter – on the back of its rapid traffic growth in India.

2005 and 2006 saw Rediff’s traffic explode.

Rediff - in 2005
Rediff - in 2005

In a parallel universe, Indiaworld, Satyam, Indiatimes, attempted to go down the same path as Rediff – but – like good entrenched newspapers – Rediff already had mindshare, good columnists on board and so their content was just plain better. And they had introduced a travel destination, and shopping – online Indians had one more distraction even though we were hardly buying online in droves. Rediff Finance, with its live market commentary, was quite  a hit. There were also a bunch of less visible, less successful properties in blogging, video (though iShare did get decent traction). But by 2007, Rediff was already fighting battles with the newcomers, and with Yahoo which was beginning to fight for the Indian audience as well.  It was still very popular, but there was some bit of noise in the offerings, and the distinction between Rediff and other India specific portal offerings continued to diminish.

The big jolt, as far as Rediff is concerned – came not so much from a single competitor as it came from the fact that users moved away from portals altogether! Cricinfo was growing in popularity within the cricket followers. More and more content started to get found through search engines. A ton of Bollywood related sites, armed with aggressive SEO, swamped the results there and Rediff lost these battles.  Younger, smarter shopping sites started wooing a slowly but steadily growing e-commerce audience. Every newspaper launched an online version, and India focused news aggregators emerged too (Rediff attempted one themselves – but more as a technology enabled feature that an aggressively packaged and marketed product).  Rediffmail, blogs, and numerous other smaller products had never quite gotten too big, and suffered as the newer, larger audience getting on to the internet did not quite establish comfort levels or even familiarity with the brand, which wasn’t doing much product-wise to adjust to the changing scenario anyway.  The loss of talent, and difficulty in attracting good quality replacements only complicated things for a company grappling with an identity issue; was it a primarily an innovative, technology-led outfit or was it more of a media company?  (While on the technology focus, you have to give it Rediff as far as making small, forward looking acquisitions is concerned – very few Indian companies have confidently done that.)

A further disconnect from the now fast growing online Indian audience came from the success of Facebook, Orkut and Twitter. Though this was happening within a much smaller population, these were responsible for a lot of the traffic, and were influencers. A lot of content discovery, for instance, now happens through these channels. And its not just the opinion of the established columnists that gets sent around on these. Obviously, Rediff’s USP was blunted, and the persistent traffic drop speaks for itself.

By 2008, Rediff was playing catch up. The spend on technology, R&D and related acquisitions had grown significantly at a time when Rediff faced its first revenue decline in some time; a continued focus on innovation was announced at the same time. The downturn did not help, as ad inventory and revenues both shrunk. Somewhere in the midst of its growth and battling new competition, Rediff lost sight of the audience. They first gave the Indian language approach a shot – Rediffmail was made available in 11 languages – but this was later abandoned as it hardly ever got used.  There were a couple of acquisitions for language and transliteration tools. There was an attempt at becoming a player in the search engine wars. There was even a desperate sounding attempt at creating a developer platform – this at a time when the audience itself was thinning! A mobile application was launched, and later Rediff toyed with mobile ads as well.  Vakow was bought, and then wrote off reasonably quickly.

In other words, Rediff, which has tasted success earlier being “India’s Yahoo”, now was caught in the trap of trying to emulate what the Yahoo’s and Google’s of the world were doing. Unfortunately for them, Yahoo, like Rediff, was fighting its own battles anyhow, and Google could afford some experiments on the back of its search success – a luxury that Rediff hardly had. It is not that none of the product ideas above had merit, or should have not been attempted. Its just that as a company, there seemed to be a lack of direction, or coherent strategy. Any one product could have been a winner. The success of something as straightforward as Posterous – which many dismissed as merely yet another blogging platform – highlights the fact that focus, and persistence, do pay off. But, at Rediff, there seemed to be too much happening in too many different directions. Examville, of which they bought 26% not too long ago, is a pretty decent bet in itself, yet does not seem to align itself to a strategy or focus that Rediff is pursuing. At least from the outside, there seems to be disarray and a sense of confusion.

The latest redesign of Rediff’s homepage, and the ensuing discussion around it made some of us old timers cringe. Rediff almost represented the Indian internet to us at one point, and it isn’t a good feeling to see it lose out each space it operates in. Yes, its still a popular site in the Indian context, and manages enough eyeballs, and there’s the odd update, feature that shows a spartk. But overall, the lack of efforts at beating the market curve, or spotting online trends early, and its traffic and revenue graphs betray a trend which is a little alarming and very, very heartbreaking.

What do you think has been going wrong? And assuming you, like some of us old timers, would like to see it invigorated – what do you think can and should be done ?

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