Why making replicas of currently successful websites is bad idea
I am writing this more as a reminder to myself, and also to have a link which I can easily send to people who ask us to build them replica of Facebook.
We, here in Nivas, at least twice a month get a client requesting us to to build a website which replicates (and improves) an existing high-end successful website. Lately social networks are a big hype, so we get quite a few Facebook-wannabe requests, and not to limit requests to social networks - we get requests for eBay clones, Amazon clones, Plaxo clones, Twitter clones ...
I will take Facebook as an example, since most of the people are familiar with it.
Facebook opened at 2004. That is four years ago, almost five now. Facebook started as a closed project of Mark Zuckerberg and only Harvard students could join. The initial pool of people was very limited and very controlled, and marketing was easily done - Mark could just tell to all the people "Come join", and he got his first 50 users. As time passed, more people and friends wanted to join, so Mark opened registration to other colleges, then to any university student, then to high-school pupils, and then to everyone old enough to hold the mouse and type on the keyboard. Even after Facebook opened to everyone, it still went through a couple of evolution steps, adding functionality, changing and improving design based on experience and user input, and will keep evolving until the day it somehow dies.
All websites that are hard hitters on the net now passed some sort of evolution.
Attempting to create a website that will be an exact duplicate of Facebook in it's current state (or any other hard hitter) and making that a starting point of a project is just doomed to failure.
Well mister Daemon, tell us why is that so? Alright, listen:
1. You have no users and no content to start with.
Easy one to understand. You have nice site, but no content on it. If you made eBay replica, you will need at least 10.000 items there to attract anyone. If you made Facebook replica, you will need 10.000 users so that the site appears alive and fluid.
2. People will be blocked by the complexity of your project.
Releasing a complex huge site online is pretty big fail. Even if you invest in marketing of your site, new people that come to it will just be stunned and knocked-out by all the tools that you invented for them. You will now ask me "Well how come that even tho Facebook is so complex, new people come to it constantly?". Answer is easy; they were introduced to it by someone who is already feeling comfortable with complex functionality, and even if people get stuck, they can always ask someone how to do certain things. As Facebook's functionality grew, from most primitive to what we have today, people were learning how to use it gradually. Then those people who have the knowledge can easily help newcomers. Your project does not have "old" folks that know everything.
3. You are competing with existing monsters, and you cannot win fast.
You can win. In 4 years from the release date of your site. And only if you plan your evolution and plan your growth.
Then we have a question of location. If you are building regional site, or site targeted for specific country, the problems become increased tenfold. What works on global scale does not necessary mean it will work in your target country/region. This is a whole another set of issues you have to analyze before doing a major investment in big website. But this is a topic for another post.