Monday, December 03, 2007

Not your father’s Google

The online search business is about to be upended by a revolution in technology that represents the last, best chance for newspapers and other traditional local media to preserve their franchises.

Despite falling revenues and rising online competition, publishers still have the rich archives and potent local presence that make them the ideal partners to team with the next-generation search companies preparing to take on Google and the other incumbents in an industry projected to double to nearly $17 billion in revenues by 2011.

Instead of ceding web search to Google, Yahoo and Microsoft – as they almost universally do today – publishers should combine their vast archives with the best technology from the start-ups to create compelling, state-of-the-art, local web and mobile sites. In so doing, newspapers can leapfrog the search behemoths to regain a commanding, and substantially unassailable, digital presence in their respective markets.

This opportunity is the subject of a new white paper I have written to explain how publishers can team with the emerging search companies to take advantage of the most compelling online strategy for newspapers since the inception of the Internet. You can get it by emailing me at alan [dot] mutter [at] broadbandxxi [dot] com.

With Google’s stock trading at record highs, this may seem to be an odd time to discuss the sophisticated, new technologies that some day could make googling as obsolete as pecking at an old Royal typewriter. But it’s safe to say that today’s middle-schoolers will have far superior search resources at their command when they write their college term papers. They might even have them by the time they start high school.

Given Google’s enormous market power (67% of all searches) and profitability (nearly $15 billion in the corporate cookie jar), the company itself may lead the way to the next-gen technologies that will transform search, the largest online advertising category. But the unavoidable inertia typically associated with a corporation of Google’s size also exposes it to challenges from smaller, more nimble, competitors.

The Google killer could be a classic start-up that bootstraps itself out of nowhere – like Google did – to become a multibillion-dollar business. But a more intriguing alternative is one that also offers newspapers and other local media companies the opportunity to reinvigorate and defend their once-indomitable franchises.

Beleaguered as local media may be, they still have the market presence and unsurpassed wealth of content that make them the perfect partners for the new search companies preparing to compete with Google and the other market leaders.

The emerging technologies that could upend the search business are far smarter than the crude, but effective, algorithms that today power Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

The new technologies surpass the conventional search engines, because they identify, evaluate and establish relationships among the billions of discrete bits of information they catalogue, thus enabling them to respond to searches with deeper, fuller and more contextually appropriate results than you can get with Google. The value of these new technologies is best illustrated by considering the limitations of the current state of the art.

If you search “apple” today on Google, you get a lot of information about the computer company but not much about the fruit, because Google, rather primitively, sorts and ranks results according to the frequency and prominence of the key words contained in the content it continuously scrapes from the web. Because more people write about iMacs than granny smiths, the outcome is perfectly understandable, but not particularly helpful if you want to make a pie.

If you want to discover the best apple for a pie, you have to feed Google the right series of key words to learn what it is. The path to the answer in this case involves a four-step search for “apple,” then “best apple,” then “best apple pie” and, finally, “best apple for pie.”

Most of us can speed the process by picking the right combination of key words on the first or second try. But that reflects the superiority of human intelligence, not the quality of Google’s technology. Still, for all our cleverness as a species, we are able to acquire satisfactory answers to our searches only about two-thirds of the time, according to the limited industry research conducted on this question.

But what if there were a better way? What if computers could understand the meaning of all the bits of data necessary to intelligently parse and present the answer to a query like, “Where can I find a Spanish-speaking, female physical therapist, who accepts Blue Cross and who sees patients after 6 p.m. at an office within half a mile of public transportation on the Northwest Side of Chicago?”

That’s the idea of a host of complex new technologies collectively called the semantic web, a term coined by Tim Berners-Lee, who is generally credited with being the father of the Internet.

In the semantic web, information would be tagged according to commonly understood conventions, so the word “Spanish” could be recognized in certain contexts as a noun referring to a language or ethnicity and in other settings as an adjective relating to geography or food.

To get there from here, a number of efforts are under way to train computers to catalogue vast arrays of content with tags – invisible to humans but intensely meaningful to computers – that allow bits of information to be stored in databases structured according to standardized schema.

Newspapers and other content-rich local media can gain an unassailable lead in their respective markets by teaming with the emerging semantic technology providers to efficiently publish targeted and personalized interactive products utilizing the articles, images, audio and video that already populate their archives – or that will be created in the future by their staffs, syndication partners and site visitors.

The increasingly granular knowledge of consumers gained by tracking how they use content will enable media companies to cost-effectively sell premium-priced, targeted advertising that intercepts buyers about to make a purchase.

The powerful new wave coming in search technology will give media companies their last, best chance to reassert their relevance and re-establish their economic strength. If they fail to seize this opportunity to publish agile, customizable and cost-efficient digital media, there is a great danger that their franchises will be damaged irretrievably.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Newspapers and other content-rich local media can gain an unassailable lead in their respective markets..."

Interesting idea, but I bet that (1) they won't try, and (2) even if they tried, it wouldn't work due to some combination of half-hearted efforts on their part and over-promised, under-delivered results on the tech side.

Having said all that, I do think there's a huge opportunity for better data.

P.S. Hiding a white paper behind an email address strikes me as a bad habit from the old world and IMHO conveys a subtle "even though I'm talking about the new world, I'm still stuck in the old" message.

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Publisher should "team with the next-generation search companies"

Sure they should. The problem is, they still can't. VCs are having trouble picking the right company half of the time.

The odds for newspaper execs to pick the loser start-up are high. That, in turn, would deepen their vassalage on Google and the like.

1:57 AM  
Blogger rjcraig said...

Agreed...newspaper leadership tends to lack the courage to venture into this kind of initiative, bound as they are to "business" expectations. However, they need to be reminded (in the hope that some newspaper leader blazes the trail) that local information is what people want. Newspapers provide it better than any other form of media. They need to capitalize on it. Everyone who believes in this needs to speak out and urge newspapers to tap into their greatest strength.

6:24 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Why not post the white paper here on the Web? Why require people to email you for a copy?

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any evidence that the new money taking over Dow Jones or the Tribune gets it?

5:13 AM  

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