Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Highlights from the ASIDIC Fall Meeting: Premium Content in a Google-Centric World

I was able to pop out to Newport Beach, California this week for the Fall Meeting of ASIDIC, the Association of Information and Dissemination Centers. ASIDIC meetings have a "just right" size to them that attracts top-level managers who are there to really discuss matters and to put active ideas out on the table: very little posturing and lots of substance. I will try to pull some top-level insights into a News Analysis later this week but there were some key insights, technologies and concepts that surfaced. A fair amount of stuff here, wade through the bold headlines to the topics that interest you most (or heck, read the whole thing).

Licensing Services Well-Positioned for Online Growth
Ezra Ernst, CEO of Swets, gave a great keynote outlining their role in content licensing, highlighting how their services are very much in the center of the "long tail" of content: while the top 8 publishers using their services to license content for academic, corporate, government and medical markets comprise about 40 percent of their revenues, a third of their revenues are coming from the bottom third echelon of publishers. Getting that middle tier to perform adequately is where "the real action is" according to Ezra.

Models for his professionally-oriented publishers are shifting: where it used to be print with an electronic supplement for licensing, now it's largely electronic licensing with the print component thrown in for free oftentimes. Online content in his mind is becoming the content of record, especially since speed of delivery ensures its freshness. His recommendation for libraries: focus on analyzing your user statistics more carefully to build ROI arguments. I see services such as Swets very well positioned to play a more aggressive role in enabling institutions to access licensed premium content online via search engines - with Swets seeming to have a more aggressive approach towards this particular opportunity than EBSCO.

From Licensing Chicken Farms to Selling Chicken Parts
The highlight of the meeting was doubtless a video clip (QuickTime) assembled by DeepVertical, a vertical search and content development service, set in an (empty) butcher shop in New York City. A fellow comes in asking for a chicken. The butcher/aggregator says that he can't give him a chicken, but that he can license him a chicken farm for a whole year if he signs a licensing contract. It gets even better from that point, with the moral of the tale being: "Let your content hang out where they do, then slice and dice. The customer is not the enemy: don't force them to buy the farm." A great message for this era of The New Aggregation, to be sure, though there are opportunities for both butcher shops and farm lessors abounding through online search engines. It takes some experimentation to find the right mix of licensing, direct sales and free content: as Bill Burger of Copyright Clearance Center put it in a later panel, "You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince." Or, to put it another way, if you want to succeed in a Google-ish world you need to be willing to experiment like a Google. Our thanks to DeepVertical CEO Paul Levy for a compelling argument that all senior publishing and licensing executives should spend a few minutes watching.

Federated Search is Everywhere - Quietly
During a great dinner at Joe's Garage, which hosts a phenomenal collection of vintage hot rods and racing cars, a search-oriented person asked me what had changed in the last year in federated search, a topic of much discussion at the meeting. I answered not much from a technical standpoint but from a market standpoint there had been a great deal more penetration of federated search into both corporate and online spaces. MuseGlobal's VP of Marketing Frank Bilotto was the host of the meeting and their successes in powering federated search behind the scenes in a widening swath of OEM agreements is emblematic of the state of federated search: it's everywhere, and yet because it's being implemented as part of a greater product or enterprise solution you don't necessarily hear about it that much.

Then again, as Google takes in more content from aggregators into its premium search services it winds up federating the federators, as well. The bottom line is that via a wide variety of technologies formerly disparate content sets are being assembled more effectively than ever before to service a Google-trained generation of users who expect simplicity and transparency in content access.

Federated search was also a topic amongst the meeting's presentations and panels. CSA Product Manager Leslie D'Almeida did a fantastic job standing in for President Matt Dunie describing how their MultiSearch federated search service integrates content from their own databases with content from client-specified sources via an interface that's very similar to their Illumina database product. The sales cycle for these kinds of content integration services may challenge traditional publishing sales forces, but it's a different kind of client relationship once you're embedded in their operations via federated search.

Up-and-Coming Content Technologists Strut Their Stuff
ASIDIC meetings seem to manage to attract an interesting array of content technologists, and this one was no exception. Some of the key new content technologies coming your way:

- Sign up for the BuzzLogic beta, a new service from some high-tech veterans that is going to provide some very interesting twists to determining authoritative voices in the crowds of weblogs and other user-generated content sources to help executives to determine who are the real the movers and shakers on key issues. Hint: it's not always who you think it is. A major consumer product goods company was trying to figure out how they were getting so much negative press on a particular product; BuzzLogic traced it down to one obscure "squeaky wheel," who they invited out to their headquarters and turned into an evangelist for their brands. While immediately applicable to many kinds of consumer goods companies I think that it has some interesting potential for helping to transform peer review publications down the road.

- Try out a new contextual link serving product from Infocious, a service that provides highly relevant alternatives for content embedded into the hyperlinks of your online content. It's a very crucial factor for enhancing Web site performance: you can provide your audience with contextually relevant links to your own content or external sources in a popup window that appears when the user cursors over links in your site. This provides contextuality far more granular than the "related links" content usually found on Web pages and provides opportunities for partnerships with other sources that can make the best use of these highly focused contexts - including advertisers, of course.

- Todd Malicoat of Stuntdubl gave a great presentation on how content from many online services is still opaque to the world of search engines - even though it's already online. Our own Shore site used in his demo fared pretty well, though it's clear that we need to tweak our page designs to get optimal performance. The cobbler's children are still catching up on their footwear, yet again. I got a good feel for Todd's expertise in some offline conversations, if you're looking for someone with whom to partner on a very deep level for site analysis and improvements Todd's an excellent resource.

- Nigel Hamilton of Trexy.com highlighted how this new service can help searchers to take advantage of others' quests for content on very focused topics. Users of the Trexy service can store searches that they've performed to allow themselves and, if they choose, others to see the trail of how they finally found their results. Interesting in concept, think of it as a social search service rather than a bookmarking service -sharing the journey as well as the destination. While many users may prefer the beaten path offered by the major search engines Trexy offers a unique toolkit for those who want to blaze new trails.

- I had a brief meeting with Sam Leonel, President of IndeXet, a company that offers a comprehensive toolkit for publishers trying to make the most of online content. While IndeXet tools could be used for a variety of purposes I'd say that one of the key virtues of their modular approach is that it will help publishers to aggregate content from a wider variety of sources than they may have assembled otherwise via an integrated set of indexing, publishing and ecommerce tools. Still in the formative stages as a company, but keep your eyes on them. Bert Carelli is providing senior marketing input for IndeXet.

A good sampling of new approaches to content, all of them worth a serious gander.

Thomson Gale Adapts to Digital Natives
Matthew Hong, Vice President and General Manager of Open Web Markets for Thomson Gale highlighted how one of their major challenges is adapting to the habits of the new generation of "digital natives," many of whom have rarely if ever darkened the doors of a traditional library. In the traditional product model the user was not the customer, but in a world of digital natives the user has become the customer, regardless of how content is paid for. An outgrowth of this phenomenon is Thomson Gale's Access My Library online service, which places articles from their collection into both their own portal and into the premium content services available via Google's new News Archive Search service.

Access My Library helps to accelerate the use and value of subscription collections to a given user base that's not used to pulling out their wallet for news and information sources. But the emerging challenge is how to service an emerging user base that is used to being their own publishers. Amongst the stats that Matt shared: 57 percent of U.S. teenagers have created their own Web content and 62 percent of the content that they view is created by someone who they know. Libraries need to become far more adept at considering how they can be archivers of content generated by their own digital natives.

Vertical Search Searches for Distinct Value Points
A panel with representatives from Infocious, Inform.com and VerticalSearch.com helped the meeting to wrestle with the value of vertical search engines in a Google-centric world. The bottom line is that vertical search is not so different from what other search technologies per se, making it important to provide more inflection points to add value to a search portal as a destination. For Infocious, it's providing highly contextual searches playing off of links to provide alternative destinations for exploring a topic; for Inform it's providing highly refined news results consumed both by their own portal and via links embedded in major news sites; and for VerticalSearch.com it's providing Web searches for a wide variety of business-oriented topics supplemented with premium content from HighBeam.

Whatever the "secret sauce," vertical search is less about how to refine the raw as it is being able to put both raw and refined content in the best context possible and to make it useful for specific audiences. In other words, it's about providing services for specific audiences within a vertical that add value. Some of these tech-oriented vertical search plays are not likely to have a long shelf life as companies, but the ones that adapt to the needs of their highly targeted audiences with more multi-dimensional services are likely to form a core following - or find themselves OEMing to major publishers.

Paul Gerbino, the (Un?)Sung Genius
ASIDIC host Frank Bilotto held a great on-stage conversation with Paul Gerbino, Publisher of the Product News Network, an online directory service published by the Thomas Publishing Company. Thomas pulled the plug on their print publications last year, making them a 100+ year old publisher that has crossed over completely into the digital era - with great success. Paul's key quote relating to pulling their venerable print product: "We were the world, but now it's a bigger world." 'Nuff said. Paul's one of the leading industrial publishers who has been able not only to attack his markets aggressively with leading content technologies but to implement a successful transition of their sales force to support this new positioning of its product line. It's in the grunt work, sometimes, and Paul churns it out as well as anyone to make the high-flying vision of business content succeeding online a financial success.

Paul sees his well-placed search results in Google and other search engines as the equivalent of direct mail to potential product users - even better in a sense, since it's as if you are mailing only when your prospects are interested in your content. Would that more publishers thought of search engines in this context. RSS feeds from their site help with advertising as well, generating 10 percent of their Web site clicks and supplementing the bottom line with in-line ads in the feeds themselves. With thoughtful attention to details such as this Paul has created a prototype of how other business-oriented publishers can embrace today's online content technologies aggressively and leave the past behind with a clean conscience.

Turning a Specialty Database into an Online Service
Ruth Koolish has been selling her TecTrends reference database covering technology-related companies, products and news through Thomson's Dialog service for many years, but she's no stranger to the potential for her product in an online world. At the ASIDIC meeting she demoed the latest and greatest version of her service, which has transformed itself into a very appealing online presence supported by Google AdSense and with the beginnings of search engine placement appearing for leading users to her content. Registrants can access the full range of TecTrends content.

TecTrends is an excellent example of how what was once a product with relatively specialized exposure through librarians and limited user features can become a widely accessed resource that can appeal to a very broad online audience interested in technology oriented companies and products. One expects that its more direct exposure to technology users will help to amplify and accelerate the product's growth. O, for the golden days of Dialog...not.

A Debate on the Value of Taxonomies - Kind Of
Marjorie Hlava of Access Innovations Inc. held a spirited on-stage discussion with HighBeam Research CEO Patrick Spain on the state of taxonomies and their value to the publishing industry in an era of Google-ish search engines which bypass user-exposed taxonomies. Patrick is no stranger to the value of taxonomies so it was a bit of a set-up in terms of the topic. But it's clear that as much as taxonomies are surging as an interest in enterprise and online circles they have to find their right context in a search-centric world.

Are people going to search through 50,000 search results that fit a particular node in a taxonomy? Not likely; but when they are browsing to understand what should be their scope of interest in starting a research project taxonomies can be a very useful tool to help people understand how to trigger searches. Taxonomies will take the spotlight in finite content collections where it's really possible or necessary to get your hands around a comprehensive content set. In broader search environments, though, taxonomies are important but secondary navigation aids helping search results behind the scenes through controlled vocabularies associated with a taxonomy more than they help users who have become used to multi-word searches that transcend established taxonomies.

Be it for the enterprise or online, though, it's a land office business for taxonomy developers these days. Information Today, Inc. CEO Tom Hogan noted that in a recent five-track ITI conference more than half of the attendees chose the taxonomy track. U.S. government edicts to organize all federal content into taxonomies helps to heat up the environment as well. Taxonomies are also driving many advanced features for online navigation, including faceted navigation, search engine clustering and matching contextual ads and links to text. Even when you're not immediately aware of them, taxonomies are everywhere...

If Mobile is the Future, Why Does it Feel Like 1990...?
Tony Phillip, CEO of UpSnap gave a great overview of the state of the mobile content industry, expected to grow to a USD 200 billion industry by 2010. Tony cataloged all of the great services coming on board from audio, video and text providers for smart phones and other mobile platforms. No question that mobile is huge, and in some ways may come to drive online services as much as the other way around. But as I mentioned in a question to Tony, whey does it feel as if we're looking at Compuserve in 1990 when we're looking at these typical "walled gardens" of licensed content on mobile devices?

Tony acknowledges that these are likely to be challenged in the years ahead - certainly the digital natives aren't keen on paying premium rates - but there's money to be made in mobile services that focus on contextualizing a users' geographic whereabouts with both mainstream content and content that will help people within social networks. As strong as mobile services have become I expect that the real growth will come when broadband Internet services come into mobile devices in full force and broaden the range of services and of innovation available to users of Web services in mobile environments. We've only begun to scratch the surface of mobile's full potential.

The Terminology Changes, But the Concepts Remain
Shore Senior Analyst Jean Bedord gave a short presentation on how many of the terms and concepts that are being touted as new in search these days are in fact very well-established concepts that have been underlying the information industry for forty years. Is everything old new again? Yes, in many ways. There are only so many ways to organize content and the groups of users needing service are still pretty much the same as well.

What we confront in our industry is pretty much the same issues that publishing has always faced, just in different buckets. But the big difference this time around is the involvement of users as publishers. The scale of user-generated media being produced via the web for use and reuse is completely unprecedented. We have many good and powerful analogies that help us to understand this growth, but at the end of the day a truly global Content Nation built on individuals as publishers has begun to change the world in a scope that we are only beginning to understand.
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