I hate my friends and Google told me so.

>> Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In web development there is a set of elements of a site that are repeated on a per-site basis. It need not be this way and it hampers way users interact with their friends, it slows the web down, and it increases security risks. I've seen a very small amount of attempts to rectify this situation and none of them really promised any hope until I reinstalled the Google toolbar and saw what it had to offer (that for some reason wasn't available just by keeping the plug-in up to date).

Google has built in a "send to a friend" (STAF) element which can be used to replace that functionality - or add it to where it never was - on any website. This is a marvelous step forward in the operation of the web, even if Google merely thought it a convenience (although I have no way of knowing what caused them to add it). Although I find some - extremely minor - inconvenience in the functionality of Google's STAF tool, I will never again use a site's custom-built version.  The inconvenience is that it sometimes seems to take a while to pop up the new window it uses - but that might be my own fault for having too many extensions installed.  The advantages are numerous:

First, you no longer have to hate your friends by risking their personal information; there is now only one company you have to trust with your information.  Who knows what a company is really doing with the addresses you supply them with?  An old friend of mine recently dumped her years-old address due to spam, and instructed everyone to NEVER even enter her new address in any web form, whatsoever, for this very reason.  In defense of the individual websites, yes, their usage license should prevent them from sharing, let alone saving, your addresses.  But that is a "should" and not all websites even HAVE a usage license.  You can be guaranteed that the website is going to use the analytics gathered from their STAF usage to determine the popularity of their site (ROI), but as a user - is this something you even need to concern yourself with?  From the site's perspective, is it really something that should even be used as a measuring tool?  Even the best results that could be aquired from it will still only be a portion of the statistical picture, because there ARE people who will refuse to use the site-based STAF.  It's really nice for the site owner to see their stats, but word-of-mouth should be left as word-of-mouth.

Then, as you are already using your email tool, that is Gmail, as the delivery method, you also have the convenience of having all your contacts' addresses on hand, and you may send the message to as many people as you'd like, and in whatever fashion you'd like.  Typically site-based STAF tools send things in a blind carbon-copy fashion, which is probably most preferable, but what if you want to send them in mass CC style? I prefer to have the option.  You also never know whether the site's tool will be able to handle sending to more than one friend at a time, which is also an annoyance you shouldn't have to put up with.
Some sites will force you through the laborious process of signing up with their system in order to use any of their tools.  This is a far less common occurance for STAF tools, but it has happened and it should never.

The page you send is, for the most part, actually included in the email you send.  It doesn't seem to include Flash files, so any YouTube videos or Homestar Runner episodes that you might try to send won't actually appear in the user's inbox, but that is proper and to be expected.  Your friends' email readers won't show those things, anyway.  Sending the content in your actual email serves three good purposes:  It does not force your friend to potentially register for whatever site you may be sending them to - as many online newspapers have thought it justified to do.  Directly related to that, the content that you're sending to your friend won't have the chance to "expire" - an annoying practice that other (usually newspaper-based) sites have taken up.  Finally, the sent mail is recorded for your own purposes in your Sent folder, so if you ever need to look up what you sent to someone, it's right there.

Removing the STAF element from a website gives the agencies one less thing to clutter up the site with and keeps costs down, as neither designers are needed to create graphics, nor developers needed to program them.  (Modern API's do streamline the coding production of these, but you can't balance the amount of hours used for creating a custom STAF with the zero hours for using a browser-integrated STAF)

Google isn't the only one to attempt to free the user from the site-based STAF tools; I have tried (and enjoyed) the Cooliris extension.  Cooliris does more than just replace the send-to-friend, such as in-page quick previews of links and context-menu relational searching, but it's STAF element pales in comparison to using Gmail as a delivery method.  Investigate if you'd like, and if you have other STAF alternatives, I'd love to hear from you.



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