Zude: Drag, Drop And Network

What will the next generation of social networking sites look like? Zude, a startup based in Roslyn, N.Y., thinks the answer lies with customization, and as such is offering a platform that is part social, with a community of member pages, but also part web mashup, with a drag-and-drop design application that lets users drag content from (almost) any web site directly onto their Zude pages.

Owned by Fifth Generation Systems (5g), Zude had raised $5 million in VC funding when it rolled out its private beta last May — only to find it was unable to handle the site traffic. So the company regrouped, beefed up its capabilities, and launched a public beta, to little fanfare, in July.

The pre-designed templates on which users can build their pages resemble a typical MySpace profile, with features including a guestbook and profile information. Also like MySpace, Zude is trying to tap into cool by encouraging musicians to add profiles and music to the site. It also plans to eventually add a classified directory, according to CEO Jim McNeil.

At its core, however, the company is trying to make it easy for users to design their own, fully customizable web sites and profile pages that are a mashup of found and created content, sort of like a free-for-all NetVibes.

Do they accomplish this goal? Well, sort of. The interface is fairly painful to navigate at first, at least in Firefox (it’s supposedly better in Internet Explorer; it didn’t work at all in Safari), but with the end goal of putting together a custom webpage, it’s still easier to figure out than Dreamweaver.

It’s also easy to make a really ugly, graphic-heavy web site, replete with clashing colors. As we learned from MySpace, self-expression isn’t always pretty.

What really sets Zude apart from similar startups like ZCubes, PageFlakes, NetVibes and others is that it lets users actually drag content in from other windows and plop it right down on their page. Similar to competitor ZCubes, you can take an image from Google image search in one window, and click and drag it onto the page, easy as…potential copyright infringement? We’ll leave it to Zude’s lawyers to deal with that problem.

Like ZCubes, Zude lets users create a mashup of Internet sites. For instance, check out this Zude page that includes GigaOM, Earth2Tech, and NewTeeVee that I spent about 30 minutes creating — 25 of which were spent trying to get the application to work properly in my browser.

Don’t bother trying to put a Facebook profile on the page, though. McNiel explains that Facebook is among the list of sites that block the ability to plop their content into a mash-up page on Zude; The New York Times is another one. Instead, users are limited to posting links.

It turns out it’s not too difficult for companies to block Zude from being able to go in and, uh, borrow content from their pages. Sites might want to block Zude because it’s not exactly kosher to run ads on someone else’s content. But some sites might like the added traffic. The copied web sites load in full inside the Zude pages, with advertising intact. It’s unclear how many sites will block Zude, and if that will affect their growth potential.

The biggest problem with Zude at the moment is its interface. Even a well-designed page gets cluttered with an annoying and ugly navigational bar at the top of the screen, and the banner ad that pops up in the bottom of the screen for the first 30 seconds after the window loads doesn’t help, either. The company plans to offer paid accounts that will get rid of that advertising altogether.

If Zude can clean up its UI a bit, it could catch on.