Are You Down With ODS?

Online data storage isn't the sexiest of trends emerging in the search space, but it's one with more implications than I at first realized. I wasn't convinced until renowned blogger and Web 2.0 evangelist Jeremiah Owyang made his case during an e-mail exchange, and then expounded on it at length in blog post listing 40 thoughts on why this is one of the big issues to watch.

The short version of the connection between storage and search is that more digital content requires more digital storage, and cheap storage stimulates consumer and enterprise proliferation of digital content. The more content that's stored, the more important search functionality is. The better the search functionality, the more people will use it. Additionally, following this vein, the more that people know they can find whatever it is they want, the more they'll create, digitize, and store content online, adding yet one more driver for the trend.

It's not hard to find examples of how this has played out; consider the genesis of Yahoo. In the 1990s, it was better known as a directory. Search didn't matter all that much until the volume of content became so large that browsing became inefficient.

The same comparison can be made with television. For most of its existence to date, you could view what was on by turning the dial or flipping channels. The more channels and programs that are added, the less effective a strategy browsing is. Search is a part of some of the latest digital video services, and in time searching for TV programs will be the standard. Such a shift is also happening with satellite radio and mobile content.

The search engines are a prominent part of these trends. Of Jeremiah's 40 observations, seven directly mention Google and four mention Amazon, which has a search engine at A9.com and which, along with eBay, can be considered one of the two largest shopping search engines. The other major engines appear on the list, even if they're underrepresented by name, and the engines are connected to almost all of the 40.

Owyang goes out on a limb in one of his non-Google entries, predicting that "consumer level data storage will become so cheap that the model will flip, and online storage companies will pay consumers/producers to upload content in return for contextual marketing and advertising."

In this hypothetical scenario, which is hardly far-fetched, the producers would earn revenue. They would supply the content that the consumers would access, with the content supported by contextual advertising; a share of that advertising would go to the producer. It's even more appropriate to talk of producer-consumers and consumer-consumers, as producers are consumers, too, yet producers take a more active role in supplying content.

The hypothetical model is essentially a "Bizarro World" version of an affiliate network. In the traditional affiliate model, a merchant site (e.g., Amazon) serves as the producer, which teams up with a publisher (often a low-traffic site run by a publisher-consumer), and the publisher earns a small commission on anything it helps consumers purchase. In the Bizarro affiliate model, a producer (or, a producer-consumer) provides content through a publisher (e.g., Google) and earns a small commission on ad revenue the producer helps the publisher earn.

There are some limitations and obstacles for the new model. Privacy issues are the most pressing. Consider what would happen if an online data storage company publicly exposed the entire digital cache of some of its users, including items marked "private." That AOL search database fiasco would seem like a dewdrop compared to such a tidal wave of concerns.

Then there are the ad models themselves; how much is content contextually related to such digital assets worth? It's a question I posed in January 2005, in a column of predictions for the year in relation to desktop search: "What's it worth to a search engine or technology company if five million users download its desktop tool? Few have convincing answers." The models for all these companies in the storage space, from Google Desktop to Xdrive, the AOL subsidiary that now offers 5 gigabytes of free storage, have yet to be fully fleshed out.

It doesn't have to be entirely sorted out for it to make an impact. Just think what could happen if a major search engine's index expanded from, say, 20 billion pages to 20 trillion files? The competition for ranking high will only get fiercer--but so will the opportunity to expand your searchable digital footprint.

I remember my mom taking me shoe shopping as a kid. She pointed to a pair of Timberland workboots and said, "You'll get shoes like that when your feet stop growing." When I graduated high school, I bought a pair; they still fit perfectly. As for my digital footprint, though, it's like I'm still wearing baby shoes. I think hardly any of us, outside of the few Jeremiahs out there, have a sense of just how big those searchable footprints will grow.

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