Commentary

Table for Four

I had a Dickensian Wednesday this week. Yes, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times, all in one day.

The best of times was reading that Los Angeles Times article that has so many people talking. Many in our industry were glowing about the piece that ran this Wednesday with the headline Web Pulls Ad Buyers From TV. Other online outlets have covered the news value of this, so there's little point in reviewing the facts here. Let's just say that this article in one of the country's most respected newspapers, with references to such major brands as American Express, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Land Rover, Staples, and The US Army, was sweet music to thousands of us who have toiled in interactive for so long.

If last year was the year of validation for this industry, with our ship turning toward warmer waters, this year already seems to be the year that our ship throws a serious wake.

Of course, much of the turn last year - at least in terms of ad dollars - was driven by search engine marketing (SEM). SEM comprised perhaps as much as half of all ad spending online last year. Interestingly, the LA Times article was more focused on rich media banner ads and online video, or whatever we're calling it these days, with special attention to targeting precision and the impact of broadband.

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Perhaps this focus was interesting only to me because of what became the worst of times, over dinner Wednesday night. There, in a lengthy conversation with three others, I got an earful about what was wrong with search specifically and interactive in general from multiple perspectives.

The characters, in addition to myself: 1. A lawyer with a young niece just diagnosed with a potentially life-altering disease, Infant Scoliosis 2. A particularly Web-savvy hospital administrator 3. The owner of a large industrial services business

The lawyer started the conversation with the bad news about her niece's diagnosis, and continued it (largely directed at me) by producing about an inch of paper from Web pages she'd printed out that day, most of which were useless to her.

She wanted to know why the search results she got differed so much on Google from Yahoo!, About, and Ask Jeeves. Apparently, only one site - based in Europe, had much of the information she found useful. What she'd brought home was mostly from the sponsored listings that appeared first everywhere but on Google, and she also pointed out that the ad banners on these pages were selling everything from Herpes treatments to Napster, the U.S. Navy, and Bank of America. While she liked helping the parents of her niece prepare for their next doctor's visit, she was disgusted with the amount of unrelated marketing and just garbage that she'd had to endure during her search, and vowed to use only Google from now on.

I commented that I'd read that doctors expect 80 percent or more of the patients they see to be prepared with similar print-outs - sometimes rubbish - but always arming these patients, sometimes with information that needs to be addressed and sometimes refuted.

Here, the hospital administrator spoke up. "You have no idea," she said. Our doctors spend the first few minutes of almost every visit either reassuring patients or telling them to disregard what they found on the Web. It's a constant battle of too much information."

The owner of the industrial services business threw up his hands at the whole conversation, complaining about how much he'd spent on his own online assets, including a Web site, and how little return he'd derived from it. "I'm over it - at least until I get my e-mail to work properly again," he said.

The push and pull between the Web's desire to draw more money from marketers, and consumer's desire to access the Web for relevant information in real time will likely be an active battle for years to come. I probably spend too much space in this column reminding readers that our industry must stay focused on the user. While we pat ourselves on the back as TV money migrates online, let's stay focused on the user experience. The conversation I endured Wednesday night positioned me as somewhere between an apologist and an instructor. But everyone else at the table was more educated than I was and had as much vested in the Web - in the context of that conversation - as I do.

As it becomes increasingly clear that we've turned the corner in interactive and the momentum is ours, we'd be well-served as an industry to keep this in mind. As always, it's all about the user.

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