To beat Google publishers must BECOME Google

…or: The secret of Boutiques.com

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Over the last few years it has been incredibly frustrating to constantly read features and Op-Eds promising insight into how traditional media can save itself in the face of digital disruption, only to find that the writer (often a veteran media pro) has merely delivered analysis of the disease with only vague suggestions toward a cure.

So when I began writing my own idea for a solution to the problem in September of 2010, the possibility that my piece might somehow be lumped in with all the other “how to save traditional media” think pieces somewhat blunted my initial enthusiasm for laying out my case. But then I thought, “What if I make a ‘working prototype’ of my model rather than just insist, in buzz word-laden media insider language, that I have what may be the answer for fading print publications hoping compete on the Internet? At least then I could feel a sense of satisfaction that the idea was not just a concept, but an actual usable construct. So I began working on the experiment by using many of the tools already available to most of us.

Many media organizations have been waiting for someone, anyone to invent the Holy Grail piece of software or hardware that will magically transform the fortunes of traditional media. But the truth is that all the software tools and platforms needed are already available–what has been missing is a new look at the problem.

“If you want to see with fresh eyes, you need to reframe the picture.”
(hat tip to Alan M. Webber)

It was this approach that eventually led to my new understanding: Traditional media has been focusing on improving the content consumption/distribution experience instead of focusing on a fundamental new imperative–rethinking the very purpose for the existence of commercial media companies. Digital distribution has, through the elimination of scarcity, largely devalued the “theater of editorial experience” in favor of digital tools that facilitate “information services.”

The proof of this is found in the search engines and social networking platforms that have become our primary sources of news, rather than the very news sites these information services draw their content from. The new Internet ecosystem has put information services ahead of theaters of editorial experience. Still, most content companies continue to force their old models on digitally-enabled audiences, rather than adopt the new dynamic of information service-first, editorial content-second.

This change in approach may sound simple given what we know today, but for traditional editors and publishers, the idea of becoming experts at putting digital information services before traditional editorial is an alien concept. After wrapping my own mind around this notion I came up with a new, fairly simple experiment that represents what I think is an effective approach to the problem facing traditional media.

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To explain this experiment, it might help if I use some conceptual shorthand:

What if Vogue magazine acquired Wikipedia and Answers.com and decided to push its search bar as the its primary entry point for finding that data, with editorial content taking a secondary, supporting position? You might have the most powerful Fashion search tool and content channel ever created.
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But why would such a construct work?

The notion that search will always be the sole domain of broad reach search engines is as flawed as the idea that the General Store was the only place Americans would ever shop. Sure, such General Stores dominated when the country was still largely a frontier with an underdeveloped distribution network. But eventually the General Store became a last resort as consumers opted to patronize specialty stores focused on a particular product category or type of patron looking for higher quality goods offered by proprietors dedicated to delivering value through curation of and experience in a particular niche. Yes, Wal-Mart exists and does just fine, but do you really want to tell your boyfriend that that’s where you purchased the cashmere sweater he got for his birthday?

The same change is gradually taking hold in the still young space of the commercial Internet regarding the serving of information. A new category of vertical search engines/information services will offer more value through a focus on defined niches. I agree with Paul Kedrosky that “Curation is the New Search is the New Curation.” We’re already seeing the age of the generalist search engine come to an end as numerous articles in just the last six months have detailed the inadequacies of Google search, a development that has allowed relative newcomers Bing and Blekko to capture the attention of consumers.

But how can traditional publishers take advantage of this major shift in a way that preserves and even enhances the value they’ve built up from years of success in the now fading print business?

For that answer, let’s go back to the Vogue.com example.

Imagine you’re an aspiring fashion designer, fashion student, or just a casual (but quite enthusiastic) fan of fashion in general. Chances are you have read one or two issues of Vogue in one of its many iterations. Now suppose you want to find a bit of information on a particular designer, brand, or event mentioned in one of the Vogue articles. Where do you go? Today, you probably go to Google or Bing, type in a few key words and hope that relevant information about your fashion query will pop up among the millions of pages indexed on those broad search engines. After sifting through all the SEO spam and fake links, you might, if you’re lucky, happen upon a relevant page.

In common sense terms, and given the Internet tools available to all, it seems odd that Vogue is not the go-to authority when one wants to search for information related to the world of fashion. No other content brand exists that can seriously boast more collective historical and authoritative wisdom on the topic of fashion. But somehow, when we want to search about fashion, we leave Vogue.com and go to Google or Bing or even Wikipedia (usually as a result of clicking a link result on one of the afore-mentioned search engines). In today’s world in which digital database tools are cheap and affordable, this dynamic makes absolutely no sense.

Google understands ALL of this. It’s why they launched Boutiques.com, a fashion portal, even though the company has repeatedly claimed that it wants to “help” publishers, not compete with them. The site features blog news, designer interviews, and product reviews. And at the top of the Boutique.com website, well looky here, there’s a powerful little search bar. Although Boutiques.com launched just a few months ago, according to Compete, the site has already rocketed to 1.6 million visitors per month versus Vogue.com’s 320-thousand visitors per month. Although based on Compete’s traffic “estimates,” this data is important.

What Google has done with Boutiques.com is give publishers a preview of how they intend to destroy the traditional publishing industry—by merging information services with editorial content.


The most direct proof of Google’s intentions came in a recent Wall Street Journal story. In response to the observation that Google often puts its own services at the top of its search results, a Google spokesperson said, “We built Google for users, not websites, and our goal is to give users answers.” That’s pretty clear. The information utility version of Google is no more, Google’s new priority is to capture consumer attention, even if it means directly competing with other content sites by pushing them down on its search result page. The battle has been joined, it’s just that the traditional publishing industry hasn’t realized that it can use the same weapons as Google to win the war.

While building my own proof of concept, and thinking about writing this piece, I looked for a solid example of the kind of inspired, well-intentioned missteps traditional media websites are engaging in as they try to remake their brands in the digital space.

Then I happened upon a service called Apture embedded on another news website. (Note: This is not a screed against Apture, I think they have come up with a great product. But…) The company claims relationships with Time magazine, The New York Times, The Financial Times, and Hearst (publisher of Esquire, Popular Mechanics, San Francisco Chronicle, and Oprah Magazine). The value proposition of the service is that it lets readers click on any word in an article on your website after which a small window opens that shows you the word’s definition pulled from sources such as Definitions.net or Wikipedia, with tab options to view the word’s search results from Google and Bing, or you can choose from key word-related image and video search results from Google Images and Youtube.

So if you’re reading the World Wildlife Foundation website and click on the word “marsupial” you’ll get a pop-up window full of information about koalas, kangaroos, etc. all directly pulled from the databases of Wikipedia, Google, Bing, etc. and wrapped in various text advertisements. Apture’s stated business model is that it “makes money through advertisements integrated into the Apture experience.” To get rid of the ads, publishers can pay a licensing fee to Apture.

Given the data rich experience, this arrangement seems relatively reasonable. But what seems even more reasonable, and effective, is if the WWF created its “own” database of wildlife terms and animal definitions, all curated and updated by the WWF staff and the passionate followers of the WWF organization. Not only would these results likely be more relevant and trusted by the readers, but the WWF site could directly benefit from any advertising framing those database results. Apture’s product offering is innovative and helpful, but the truth is that they are trying to do something that traditional content publishers should already be doing themselves: providing a service/information utility along with their editorial content.

In the words of Apture’s business pitch, “Web users today demand more than today’s ‘flat’ pages. To satisfy this demand, readers are increasingly leaving content sites to search for more information.” The pitch goes on to sell the merits of information embedded content as a means to increase reader engagement. I completely agree with the notion that such a framework can result in increased reader engagement–except for the Apture part. Readers “do” want more than flat pages, and they do want information rich content, but there’s no reason that publishers should voluntarily abdicate their responsibility and simply pass the important work of building and maintaining a database off to commercial search engines (or third parties aggregating those search engines) that are not vertically focused on the site’s area of interest. This should be the publisher’s job.

The only question now is if the new vertical search engines will be mostly offered by established brands from the world of traditional media (the most obvious sources), or new website channels unencumbered by the institutional memory of mainstream media’s approach to content.

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So that’s the How. But what about the Why?

Why did I spend the last five months quietly building this experiment around the niche of “tech in Asia”? I have a very detailed answer to that question here, but for a shorter version, Financial Times writer and Monocle founder Tyler Brûlé summed it up best in his January 28, 2011 column:

“Asia is home to the world’s second and third-largest economies. As Asia business trips now occur twice a month, I’m looking for a news service that covers breaking news, offers a regional perspective on the rest of the world, does business brilliantly… Curiously, no one’s taken up the challenge and I’m convinced there’s a massive audience for it – not to mention plenty of dollars, baht, won and yen in the form of sponsorship and advertising. I thought about this Asia-centric global news machine while driving past the headquarters of Japan’s state broadcaster NHK. As I glanced up at the rooftop crammed with satellite dishes, I became slightly depressed… There’s a need for a new network to connect Asian nations to each other – not to mention the rest of the world. The audience awaits.”

I’ve wanted exactly the same thing for some time now, but I couldn’t find it, so I took a stab at making it myself. My hope is that visitors find some use and possibly enjoyment from a thought experiment made real.
-Adario Strange

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Date
February 17th, 2011

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