Volunia: First Impressions

So, my Volunia account was finally activated and I am now a proud 'power user'. That means 'beta tester'. I got a Volunia invite from a colleague. It was marketed as an upcoming revolutionary new type of search engine. I was intrigued.

Screenshot of Volunia homepageMy first impression upon logging in can be summed up as: cluttered! I'm not sure where to begin looking with so many things drawing my eyes at the same time in all colors of the rainbow. A menu bar at the top, a 'social bar' below it, a chat-sidebar to the right. The main section has a search bar (relatively clean), a news item, some tutorial buttons, and a few of what they call 'Trending Maps'. The bottom has an unobtrusive footer, but its unobtrusiveness is overshadowed by the bright blue language bar below it, which also has a feedback button hovering over it.

So they call it a search engine, but I feel that's misleading. Certainly, searching is part of it, and they have already indexed the most popular websites out there (not all websites yet, it's on their todo list). But the way they search certainly doesn't seem innovative in any way, and I doubt they can surpass existing search engines in this area.

The innovative part of Volunia seems to be this: As you search or browse the web with Volunia, the menu-bar, social bar and chat-sidebar stay put and allow you to meet and chat with other people currently browsing the same website as you. This is an interesting concept, with a lot of potential. But I don't like the way they do it.

First of all, they embed every website inside an iframe. This has several consequences. Your address-bar will always show the icon and address of Volunia, not the page you're actually visiting. Also, some websites refuse to exist inside an iframe and simply won't load (Facebook, for example). A much more promising approach would have been to do this through a set of browser extensions (perhaps with the current approach as an alternative for unsupported browsers).

Then there is the way they are trying to reinvent the wheel everywhere. Login is through a Volunia account. Why not use OpenID, Google, Facebook, Wordpress, or some other way to allow people to use their existing online identities? Now I have yet another account and profile to maintain. You can become 'friends' with other people through Volunia's own friend system (my fourth social network!). When you click on a users icon, you can only reach their Volunia profile, which cannot contain links to any other websites or profiles (only through the 'About Me' field). You can also upload photos to your Volunia profile... These are all services that have already been created on the web, a dozen times over. By forcing people to use Volunia's own (limited) versions of these, they are restricting their users freedom.

Ok, then there's the map thing. For select websites they offer sitemaps in a 'fun' SimCity like graphical representation. Basically these are just toys and do nothing to improve your online experience.

They would have done well to adopt the unix philosophy of 'do one thing, and do it well'. Focus on the social aspect of web-browsing, drop the rest. As it stands, I really don't see this catching on.