Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Endgame/New Game: Google Search Moves Focus on The Moment of Highest Content Value

In a typical game of chess, there are three distinct phases of play: the opening, in which a handful of chess pieces stake out strategic territory on the chessboard, the middle game, in which the positions of many pieces are used to jockey for control of the chessboard, and the endgame, in which the pieces are traded and moved rapidly into a reduced and final push for ultimate control of the board and the strategic goal of the game - capturing the king. It takes both logic and passion to excel at chess, but at the end of the day it's a well-executed plan that wins the day.

You might say that Google has been in the process of introducing its own endgame for online publishing, quietly moving dozens of initiatives into strategic positions which in and of themselves may seem inconsequential to the game as a whole - until its ultimate position begins to evolve rapidly. As in a chess endgame, Google's recent moves are swift, monumental in their impact and, potentially, decisive in determining the outcome of how content becomes valuable on the Web. Media critics like Ken Auletta have quipped that Google needs more "Kirks" and fewer "Spocks" to succeed, mistaking the crowded middle game of media posturing against Google for an ongoing battle, when in fact Google has been keeping its well-reasoned eye on the pieces that will be most important for the outcome of the game.

What's the king that needs to be captured in this endgame? The Moment. Media companies continue to churn out outdated moves such as media players serving up magazine-like renditions of their own content, thinking that quality that reflects the last game that they won is what will win the day. In the meantime, Google's intense concentration on processing power in cloud computing, Web-standardized applications and search dominance have revealed a strategy that is quickly eliminating viable moves for many B2B and consumer content and technology companies. After the September introduction of The Second Web via its Google Wave preview platform for real-time collaboration, Google has in recent days extended its dominance of The Moment via three new initiatives: expanded personalization of search results, real-time search results and voice, location and sight-activated mobile searches, including Google Goggles, a point-and-click camera-activated search feature.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land has an excellent analysis of how Google's debut of personalized searching that doesn't require a Google login is introducing a "new normal" for its search environment, in which the content presented in search results will by default be different for different people based on their last 180 searches on Google. What is The Moment for these people? Where their interests have been most recently. Instead of waiting for editorial boards to decide what The Moment should be, Google is yet again trumping traditional editorial functions and allowing people's own behavior to have a seat at the editorial table automatically.

The introduction of content from real-time Web sources such as Twitter, Facebook and other status-oriented messaging services in Google search results extends The Moment into content sources that have split-second relevancy to online content seekers. Klipp Bodnar points out that this stream of tweets and postings means that B2B companies can no longer ignore real-time in favor of traditional SEO strategies if they're going to get people's attention. It's a broader scope than that, of course: nobody can afford to ignore real-time social media content generation now any more than a securities trader can ignore real-time stock tickers. All brands must enter the real-time conversation of The Moment to keep in touch with their markets and to define their markets.

Google's mobile search initiatives, introduced last week at the Computer History Museum, are perhaps the most profound in their potential impact, even if their ultimate powers are years away from being felt. Voice-activated and GPS-activated Web search is being perfected rapidly at Google and through other outlets, but the Google Goggles initiative, previewed in its development phases on MSNBC recently, brings a point-and-click element to The Moment that promises to give Google a real leg-up in mobile search markets. Using the camera in mobile phones, Goggles enables searches for information on things such as landmarks, stores, products and text simply by filling the camera's viewfinder with the item and clicking. Remember all of those fussy infra-red applications that were supposed to get us "beaming" business cards to one another? Now, just take a photo of someone's card and it will be uploaded into a contacts record. In just those few capabilities already targeted, whole content markets are about to develop as people capture content in The Moment.

And who will have all of the search data and metadata regarding all of these Moments? Yep. Yet again, Google is positioning itself to be the cloud-empowered master of what people are interested in right now, giving them the ability to bring people closer to their interests and passions simply by asking for them. And, yet again, by including as much content as possible in serving their customers, Google doesn't second-guess what people consider to be valuable in The Moment. If the stock and news tickers of the 20th century distributing content from central markets and publishers were the gold mines of Moments in that era, Google's absorption and distribution of content from anywhere to anywhere in The Moment has enabled it to enlarge its unique databases far more broadly and rapidly than any other publisher on earth. And, like a chess endgame, the speed with which other players are losing effective counter-moves against Google's strategic position in The Moment is only quickening.

No small wonder, then, that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is scrutinizing Google's acquisition of AdMob, a leading mobile ad network. Markets thrive when there are still a good number of pieces on the board to keep competition high. But perhaps it's time for the FTC and companies in the content industry to look beyond this rapidly emptying game board and to consider what the next round of content industry chess is going to look like. If The Moment is the new center of the publishing industry, how does content become most valuable in this context? The answer to this question is, in part, to acknowledge that the companies who collect the most input about the world most rapidly become the most knowledgeable about what is happening in The Moment.

It's a phenomenon that I call "the Sensor Society," a world in which our corporate awareness and memory becomes a valuable through common access in a way that reverses the "information is power" equation. Certainly having private information will continue to empower people and organizations in select circumstances, but for the average person or business having access to all information in the right context is becoming a more powerful resource for decision-making. To borrow a concept from my book Content Nation, some portion of the DNA of society is migrating into the Google-dominated cloud, with each of us feeding that part of our collective consciousness through our voices, our camera "eyes" and our fingers touching screens and keyboards. That may be a good thing for society as a whole, but it will be an enormous challenge for institutions who are not ready to accept that migration as a beneficial development.

What does this mean for publishers? It means good things for those that can manage to get their content into these personally defined Moments more effectively. But it also takes an acceptance that "the first draft of history" that many in the media business cherish as their mission is taking on a radically new form. Like the "playback" feature in Google Wave, everyone will have access to who did what where and when soon enough. The question is, who edited it the best? Google has staked its claim as the world's dominant editorial resource for displaying billions of histories a day, sweeping away front pages across the Web into a stream that assembles Moments that matter most to audiences.

We will spend time with content in any number of spaces thanks to this editorial resource, as we have on the Web for many years. But Google has accelerated the endgame radically in the past few months for those not tuned into The Moment. 2010 is going to be a year of momentous change in the content industry. Publishers that are tuned into The Moment will be in good shape to take on all of the inputs of The Sensor Society and to trigger astounding growth in cloud-based content markets. For those that aren't tuned in, well, you better get used to the idea that you're playing a two-dimensional game of chess against a 3-D chess master. Set up the chess pieces again, Spock. It's a whole new game.
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