Today, the Internet is alive with new web apps: some totally unique, others a different twist on an already successful app, others just plain copies of another great service. This is great to see, as it gives users choice, helps fuel competition, and inspire new ideas for the next set of web apps. After all, everything is a remix. We often do interviews with developers from popular, new apps, but we often don’t look back at older apps and see what happened to them. Older apps that stuck around can have quite an interesting story, though.
Today I’m going to talk about HitTail and the revival it received when it was acquired by Rob Walling, a self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur. I usually have a low opinion of most acquisitions these days. The acquired products or services are usually outstanding, and acquired by even bigger companies – Google and Facebook are the usual top hitters. These apps more often than not are either shut down, or changed totally, much to the dismay of its users. Lucky this isn’t the case with HitTail; in fact, quite the opposite is true.
What is HitTail?
If you’ve never heard of HitTail, it’s a popular web app that quickly displays the best search terms you should target better. It does this by analyzing your traffic with their algorithm. This algorithm watches your visitors come to your site through search engines such as Google in real time and ranks the keywords they use allowing you to increase your organic search traffic. Its a pretty useful tool, one we’re planning to review soon, as I’m currently using it to revive a site I own. That said, while it’s been a great service from its inception, its success in 2012 didn’t always seem so certain.
How it got to where it is today
HitTail was started in 2006 and amassed a user base of 40,000 – a number not to be taken lightly. With its success, it found problems along the way, as is imaginable with such a large number of users. It was experiencing regular downtime, and customers of the service where leaving en masse, and rightly so – no matter how good a web app is, if its not online, it’s useless. According to acquirer Rob Walling:
“Customers were bailing on the service because of the frequent downtime. But there was a hard-core customer base that had been around for years and had stuck with the service because the main algorithm that provided recommendations had never stopped working, even though everything around it had crashed and burned.”
Rob was one of these customers, and when searching for his next start he remembered a service that ticked all the boxes for him, and was already up and running, though on its last legs.
As Rob was a long time user of HitTail he knew the problems it needed to overcome, and as someone who has launched and run many sites he knew he would be able to carry out this work.
A bug ridden app
There was a lot of bug and errors everywhere on HitTail and Rob wasted no time in sorting these out. He completely removed some of the more broken features of the site, though some people may disagree with this I think its better to cut back on broken features and instead deliver the best core features in a proper and more polished manner.
Due to the old hardware the site was constantly crashing and sometimes was offline for days at a time causing paying customers to leave. As HitTail monitors sites in realtime, it is server intensive. The server consisted of old, unmaintained hardware, with software that was also outdated and in need of a totally re-haul. Despite this, the server had to deal with running a database with over a billion rows – also unmaintained, and still receiving 20-30 inserts a second. The downtime was inevitable.
The fix for this was obvious, but didn’t go without a lot of work and money to fund the new service. Though mean, I cant but help enjoy the pain Rob had to go through when migrating HitTail to a new server. You can read that on his blog here. It goes to show how much work actually goes into our “simple” web apps!
The core of HitTail was now solid, but the origina site was cluttered, and in dire need of a redesign. Unneeded pages were stripped away, and the most important pages where given a great new look. Rob optimized them for better use, and added better calls to action in the hopes of increasing sales. The new design makes the app much more approachable, and I’d imagine its a great improvement loved by its long time users. The old design isn’t terrible, though I think you’ll agree it has been vastly improved. You can see the old version of the site in action at the WayBack Machine.
Design is important for successful apps. Visitors instantly judge apps based on their appearance as soon as they visit them, and it’s almost certain that HitTail’s old design would have scarred away more savvy users who were looking for modern, well designed apps. Thus, with new solid underpinnings and a fresh coat of paint, the original successful HitTail algorithm was ready to show its best to the world again.
I find it very interesting to see Rob Walling’s thoughts and story on the acquisition which makes a great read. It’s great to see a start up such as HitTail saved from a slow demise and is something I’d like to see more, its also something I’d like to try, especially after reading more into the story of HitTail.