For those of you who might not know, Israel has over the last decade and a half developed its own Hebrew-speaking Internet industry complete with Hebrew-language portals, news sites, social networks, blogs, e-commerce, and marketplaces.
By and large, everyone in Israeli high tech (the main, overseas-facing high tech industry anyway) ignores the local Israeli Internet. The world of .il seems uninteresting and irrelevant. I have often attempted to buck the trend and gone off spelunking into the Hebrew Internet looking for undiscovered gems. Just as often, I have come back disappointed and I think I am now about to give up altogether.
The latest impetus came a few weeks ago at the Comvention. As with every year, it was a two-day event. The first day featured talks held in English with numerous guests from overseas. The second was conducted in Hebrew and focused on the local Israel-centered industry.
Very few of my colleagues showed up on the second day. In fact, very few people I knew showed up on the second day, even though the convention center was packed. I would estimate that the overlap in the crows between the two days was less than 10 percent. And this is but one indication of the problem at hand. Simply put, the local Israel-facing Internet is small, provincial, disconnected from the outside world, and two or three years behind everybody else.
One of the panels on the second day of the Comvention was entitled “The Israeli Internet – Sleeping Beauty?” To which Gadi Shimshon, a prominent local Internet pioneer, snorted, “Sleeping Beauty? More like a fuggo in a coma.”
He’s right I think. There are a number of dispiriting issues at play in .il:
- Attack of the Blinky Ads –The average American web site has 14 ads on it. In Israel, the average is closer to 100 (I’m not making this up). Click on any major Israeli Internet site. Now shield your eyes. You are immediately assailed by a wide variety of intrusive Flash ads, popups, video clips that start playing automatically, and every other manner of annoyance you can imagine.
While annoying in and of themselves, blinky ads represent a deeper problem: the immaturity of online advertising in Israel. At the Comvention, Kfir Pravda gave an interesting talk about new trends in online video monetization. He talked about viral campaigns and interesting product placement technologies, among other things.
The crowd – which was comprised mainly of ad agency employees – lapped it up. At the end of the presentation, however, a number of people stood up and said that while they would love to introduce more clever and effective advertising online, their clients the advertisers won’t hear of it. Local advertisers don’t want something new and subtle. They want the same old annoying hard-sell with the same old easily measured parameters.
- Firefox? Not here – I challenge my readers to come up with one major Hebrew-language website that renders properly in Firefox. YNet is about the only one that comes close and even then gets tripped up with embedded video. Hebrew sites don’t do Firefox. And I won’t even mention Safari or Opera, heaven forbid.
To some degree, this represents very successful missionary work on the part of Microsoft which for years has actively nurtured generations of local .Net programmers. But it also indicates a real disconnect with the outside world. The main non-IE browsers now account for nearly 25% market share. But you’d never know that here. Local developers ignore alternative browsers because they never encounter anyone who uses them. It’s a closed loop.
The same goes for all them fancy new Web 2.0 services such as Twitter or Digg or De.licio.us. If there isn’t a homegrown version, then nobody knows what you’re talking about nor sees the need.
- Lack of Internet culture - In general, Israel does not have a civilized Internet culture. On the one hand you have the often-hateful “talkback” environment wherein portals and content sites are shot through with ugly user-generated slander. On the other hand, you have Knesset members constantly coming up with new laws whose main purpose is to censor the Internet. Either that or demonstrate that the people in charge of the Internet in this country don’t understand how it actually works.
In short, situation not so good. Somehow, the same country that can produce Internet successes like Yedda and FoxyTunes craps out when it comes to producing homegrown fare.
So, why do I care? I focus on companies which are by definition outward-facing. So, why waste 1000 words on the irrelevancy of the local scene? Because as long as Israel cannot produce local Internet sites that are connected to the world at large, we limit the pool of talented local developers and entrepreneurs who could build the next great outward-facing Internet property.
Does anyone have any ideas what can be done?