Log Off: Time for Spring Cleaning

In February, Nielsen Media Research reported a 55 percent increase in online searches. This purportedly means people "like" to search online. As much as we must respect Nielsen's statistical prowess, it's a precarious leap to assume that this increased usage is based on the pleasure people take in conducting online searches.

After all, who hasn't spent too much time searching for a misplaced cell phone or car keys -- and how many of us would claim to have genuinely enjoyed that experience?

The reason for this increase in search engine usage, in fact, is more likely the result of the public's inability to find what they are looking for online. The harder it is to find something, the more time you spend looking for it. That applies online as well as off.

The evidence to support this hypothesis is visible on almost every page of the Internet. Search results pages are overcrowded with a dizzying amount of data. Publishers have embraced every imaginable form of new content and packed it all on their homepages, jammed between the articles, advertising, and the navigation bar and search box. Content is queen again, but what a messy ruler she has become!

The result of this "content-ification" is an increasing degradation of the basic Internet experience. Our time online increasingly feels like rummaging through large, poorly organized closets -- only these closets are structured like mazes and have televisions with blaring sound. Users are being asked to make too many choices. And having too many options can be just as burdensome as having none at all.

So how do we remedy this? Do we need to rethink how pages are designed? Are the current basic navigation schemes inadequate? Has the Web finally become too impenetrable to efficiently search? Is this what Web 3.0 really means? No doubt Microsoft will raise its hand at this point and tell us that Windows Vista will solve all these problems.

The real issue that needs to be addressed, though, is the inverse relation between the amount of content being added to the Web and the amount of time we're willing to devote to wading through that content. Dispersing it across appliances -- away from the PC to cell phones, handhelds, and even big-screen TVs -- isn't going to solve this problem. In fact, the greater the number of options we have, the more likely we are to get confused.

The problem and the solution reside in the ever-present need to search -- to go out and get what we want, without needing to click through list after list of potential answers until the correct response is found. We can make lists of favorites, and now we can "tag," but at best these steps help eliminate a second search and nothing more. The Google desktop search function is a beginning, but it only moves the location from the browser to the desktop. Taken together, these "benefits" look more like symptoms than the cure.

What we really need is the ability to program our searches so that they anticipate the content that will appear on the Web, effectively keeping us ahead of the game. We need a simple, programmable application that can retrieve specific types of content as it appears, and automatically deliver it to our desktops.

This simple application would be a bit like a bot, but one that will be given access to retail sites to collect sales on specific items that we want, plus news items or a special video on, say, greyhound puppies. And it would work 24/7, could be re-adjusted, and would reward sites for providing it access with our almost immediate attention and ultimately sales.

Doesn't that boggle the space-time continuum a bit? That may be just what's needed to start cleaning the Internet closet.

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