Commentary

Consumer Search Services Tackle Blogs, But Leave Other Social Media Lurking

Looking back at 2005, consumer search engines got better and better, delivering more relevant results and becoming smarter. In many cases they've evolved vertically for specialized uses, becoming more personalized and increasingly empowered by social networks. They're helping us find content in books, seek out the best deals on travel and electronics, discover relevant news and even search photos, audio and video.

But perhaps the most important function of consumer search in the not-too-distant future will be the ability to help navigate the world of user-generated media and consumer opinions, which already are highly influential in search query results and comprise a growing share of total discoverable information online. Even back in early 2004, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 44 percent of adult Internet users used the Internet to publish their thoughts, respond to others, post pictures, share files and otherwise contribute to the explosion of content available online.

To many, these evolving ideas about search and social media fall into the category of the "living Web" or "Web 2.0."  In today's consumer search landscape, one of the more obvious manifestations of this trend is occurring around blogs and specialized search engines that mine them. Take, for instance, Bloglines, BlogPulse, Feedster, IceRocket, Technorati and, most recently, Google Blog Search.

Sure, blogs are a massively important and evolving phenomenon, rooted in individualism and freedom of speech, and fueled by RSS technologies. They represent conversations among real eople, and many blog search engines help us navigate those discussions in near real-time. These specialized search services help users identify significant and recently discussed topics, and work to determine blogger credibility and popularity based on inbound links and other profiling techniques. Human tagging has also emerged alongside some engines to help categorize these conversations and other related content. Adam Penenberg, in a recent Wired News column, even referred to Technorati as "a public utility on a global scale."

But if search truly has become a public utility in the realm of blogs, then there is a major gap when it comes to social media platforms in general. I wonder why. Many of these platforms have been around for years: message boards, product ratings sites, wikis and public e-mail groups among others. It is important to note that these latter platforms fuel or host some of the more robust consumer commentary and meaningful person-to-person exchanges of ideas. The platforms are contributing immensely to the rising importance of word of mouth in our society. But when it comes to specialized search tools for consumers, social media platforms often are left behind in the blog hype's dust.

So how rich and important are these other social platforms for citizens of the world? Extremely! Consider patients who go to WebMD's cancer support groups to share experiences with various chemotherapies, recommend doctors and HMOs, or simply offer emotional support. Or consider the forums on FordFestiva.com where thousands of passionate Festiva car fans gather to showcase their aftermarket genius, organize group rallies and share repair tips. Or take CNET's MP3 Players Forum, where music fans are in a heated debate over which is better--the iPod or Creative. Of course, we can't omit the booming MySpace, where millions of teens and 20somethings gather to meet friends and talk about dating, fashion, music and culture in general. The list goes on and on.

The richness and prevalence of these less-hyped conversation platforms are so great that that a burgeoning market research industry has sprouted to sort and study them--side by side with blogs. Companies like BuzzMetrics (my employer) and Intelliseek (a competitor) are applying advanced search and linguistic technologies, coupled with rigorous market research methodologies, to help advertisers understand this new world. Such professional-grade measurement and research services are not practical, nor intended, for consumers. But they prove there are immensely important conversations taking place in real-time across a wider range of platforms than just blogs.

Will consumer-oriented search services answer this call? There are tremendous databases of archived and living discussions, but they often reside in disparate silos and too often are buried or searchable only amidst other staid, commercial or editorial content. There's a huge opportunity to empower consumers with more powerful capabilities to search and join conversations about issues that really matter. It's encouraging that user-generated content is so visible among all our search activities, but more can be done to drill into it and engage with it.

Think about a Technorati not just for blogs, but for all online discussion. Consider an engine that could span and filter myriad social platforms to enable citizens to identify, select and engage in discourse in a more meaningful, efficient way. What if such an engine could help determine not only blogger credibility and popularity, but also the reputation and authority of distinct communities side by side, along with their individual members? Such a service would be deemed not only an important public utility, but would further the value and reach of our individual conversations.

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