Commentary

Taking Back the Search Experience

It is a generalization of course, but it does seem like traditional media companies lose more control of their audience to the Internet every day. There are a range of reasons for this but to me none is more important than the steady rise of search.

By not participating in search, many content companies stand to lose a significant opportunity. There are clearly vast content options for a sophisticated Internet user. The key issue for so many consumers is easily navigating this mass of text and data. It is in this heterogeneous sift across a range of sources where many consumers find opinions and sentiment; alternative questions and approaches. This aspect of weighing options has great value for the consumer, and particularly for formerly content-centric companies, however it demands a rethink of the business model and approach. This is why the Financial Times Group launched Newssift.com, a business-focused search engine last quarter.

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The traditional search experience has evolved outside of the domain of content providers - perhaps in part because large content companies didn't see this as their business. So almost without noticing, publishers found that the initiation of the search for content was outside of their control and tracking. Even worse, search invited significant advertising competition. Since publishers didn't help enough with "where to go next" or how to find... they ceded control of the experience to the more technical search companies. The economic loss is still only now dawning on newspaper publishers.

Here are five steps to consider if you are interested in taking back some of this search customer experience:

Measure your traffic, where is it coming from? If you are like much of the industry it comes from search- and portal-like businesses that help steer customers. Track your page views per visit from search. It might initially be very low -- i.e. 1.1 page views per visit. That's a problem and not one to ignore.

As you think about what to do with that glaring issue -- your problem is not resolved with search engine optimization - it's really about navigation. Context matters in our experience with the consumer. Play tour director: 'here are things that you might also like,' 'here are similar problems...,' 'here are the places to go next...,' 'here's what people like you did...'. If you study a well run e-commerce site you will see these questions answered directly.

Think about what you can offer that is totally unique and yet valuable to the user experience. You might well find (we did) that an approach that is vastly different from key word / run of the mill search loomed important. There are many examples where publishers go beyond the obvious and offer context that fits with a particular buyer flow or work flow. Newssift continues to improve the art of finding in text what consumers want to make a business decision. Today this process relies a lot on manual efforts, my hope in the future we will be able to continue to leverage text annotation to deliver more insight from text.

Be open to opinion and wisdom from your community. Is there an outlet for collecting work needs on your site? Can you quantify these needs and generalize them - or are they only keyword based? The wisdom of the minority view can be fascinating. Who disagrees? Who has been right in the past? In business 10% of investors win 90% of the time. The crowd loses, so can we really say that there is a wisdom of the crowd in business? Who offers a prudent alternative view? What are the right questions to consider with a particular business issue? Can your consumers lend structure to the hunt?

How do you make money?

The largest companies on the Internet proved that you don't need to be a content company to succeed. Rather you can be an information curator. Let them access the range of information they want, and let them play with structures that help them derive value. Like Newssift, you can generate revenue through contextual online advertising as well as marketing partnerships. You may find in your segment, as we have, that people use the service to review an issue or a problem. That is a remarkable environment into which to place a focused link or ad. Consider additional functionality through subscription offerings or metadata and tracking products. Ultimately this is all about a contextual experience for a consumer. You may find that the creation of context has far more value potential than solely the creation of content.

1 comment about "Taking Back the Search Experience".
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  1. Christine Sierra from Lexalytics, Inc., June 10, 2009 at 9:36 a.m.

    Great insight and five clear steps to consider with search. Playing "tour director" is key, as people want relevant, related information faster than ever without the trouble of hunting and pecking through a site.

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