Monday, January 21, 2013

Online Book Discovery: Broken or Waiting for The Next Right Thing?

I found +paidContent's recent article highlighting research on problems with the disconnect between book discovery and book purchasing to be interesting. In some ways, the problem that booksellers have is not much different than those faced by any other "bricks" oriented merchants. People browse for books in one place, and then purchase them in another, in large part shifting purchases to online channels where they can get more competitive choices for pricing and fulfillment.

However, the discovery gap between online an in-store book outlets is not necessarily what you may think. The research from The Codex Group notes that for books purchased online, only seven percent of those units were discovered online and discovered in-store only twenty percent of the time. Moreover, in-store sales account for 39 percent of units sold.

In other words, though online sales are accounting now for the lion's share of book sales, almost twice as many books are purchased in bookstores than are discovered there. In other words, lots of people are still making the journey to a local bookstore with a specific title in mind. At the same time, online portals, including those dedicated to book discovery such as Goodreads, aren't a major factor as of yet in helping people to find books worth reading.

Book industry experts in the article suggest that booksellers should up their commitment to local bookstore outlets as one logical conclusion from this research, supporting concepts such as daily deals that have been made popular via online book selling sites. But I think that this is an incomplete view of what needs to be done to improve the connection between book discovery and book sales. One key hint lies in the second-most powerful conversion channel between content discovery and content sales: author Web sites. Although visits to author Web sites or blogs account for only about 4 percent of online content discovery activities in the study, they account for about 3.1 percent of conversions from online discovery to actual sales - a conversion rate of about 76 percent.

That's by far the highest conversion rate of all surveyed sources, and it highlights the notion that having a sense of both authors and their fans is a key factor in choosing books for purchase. What this means to me is that the huge gap in book discovery is in developing the ability of people to share their enthusiasm about books in a way that makes it easy for people who they know to share their enthusiasm. Generally these are real-world relationships that create these connections, both in the retail space - trusted booksellers - and personal acquaintances. Tightening the ability of someone to move from personal influence to transactions is the real key to improving book sales.

It's notable that while Amazon dominates online book sales and is the "go-to" starting point for 66 percent of online book browsing activity, it's only reaping about 6.6 percent of sales from those visits - a ten percent conversion rate. That's the second-best rate of the surveyed sources but a distant second in the actual rate, even if the volume of those visits build their revenues. This means that there are enormous gaps in Amazon's ability to act as a trusted source of book recommendations and discovery tools.

Social media and social sharing features in ebook apps can help this process, but by and large these tools are very under-developed at this point. +Google+, Google's rapidly growing social media portal, enables users to embed links to their online Google Play bookstore in posts on that servie, along with a link to preview content from a book. This is a good example of the sorts of things that could be done to enable individual enthusiasm for a book to translate much more directly to browsing and purchasing activity. But, it's only a start - and since it's tied to one social media platform and one specific book-selling platform, it's not going to solve the greater picture of getting personal recommendations translated into transactions more universally.

A few things might help book publishers to maximize the value of trusted recommendations:

  • Standards for social sharing. While there are a lot of good experiments online for sharing book content, overall it's a rabbit warren of little ideas that just aren't scaling. If personal recommendations and sharing are the primary key to book discovery, why are there not industry-wide standards to facilitate them across all ebook discovery and sales platforms? These standards should include enabling excerpts to be read, ability to discover prices and availability and to link directly to any purchase execution channel.
  • Standards for on-demand local printing. Local bookstores are likely to remain vital if they can do a better job of matching their ability to meet demand at least as well as online stores. Print-on-demand would seem to be one of the best tools for this capability, making it far more likely that a visitor to a store is actually going to purchase things. But print on demand need not be just about picking up pre-purchased items. It's also a major merchandizing opportunity, giving the merchant data that could help them to guide the visitor into other in-store items and even to custom-tailor in-store displays, both physical and virtual, to the expected visitors coming to pick up pre-sold merchandize. If an existing customer is your best source of new business, then print-on-demand has enormous potential to build upon that concept in local retailing for books.
  • Focusing on book conversations as key marketing vehicles. If markets are conversations - the old Cluetrain Manifesto axiom that gets only more relevant as time goes on - then booksellers need more than just a few talk shows to drive conversations for their authors. There has been a marked improvement in these sorts of facilities at bookseller sites, but the general environment where people actually engage people whose interests they trust - social media - is still highly under-engaged for these sorts of interchanges. Targeting bloggers, key influencers in social media communities and other trusted peers should be focused on much more heavily by agents and book marketers as sales starters for both new and existing titles, much as other marketers use social media monitoring tools to understand where they need to engage potential audiences.
None of these are likely to be sure-fire solutions, but they do show that although the book industry has been hard at work in trying to come to terms with online book discovery, they're really just at the foothills of this process. Many of the processes required to succeed in this environment may seem to be counterintuitive, especially when it comes to brand-building, but they are necessary for any successful book publishers. Without mastery of these tools, we can expect bookselling to drift away further from established marketing channels. That may not be a bad thing necessarily, but it will represent a major missed opportunity for them to do the next right thing.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Facebook Graph Search: Necessary, But is it Sufficent?

Facebook seems to have done a good job wooing the press for the introduction of its new Graph Search feature, with dozens of articles strewn across the Web touting Facebook's new search feature as an awesome breakthrough in social media discovery. But let's be clear about what this feature really is, what it really offers and what it doesn't offer. Put these three things together, and I think that what you get is the story of a company that has lagged woefully in content discovery tools that is just beginning to catch up.

Graph Search is not really a revolutionary tool at its heart: it's a combination of relational database lookup and a natural language processor on its front end that organizes the database lookups. The fields that are searched are the relatively sparse personal information that a person or entity enters into their Facebook profile, plus the links and signals (such as "likes") that people enter into Facebook. This information is used to retrieve profile cards for the people and entities that match the query.

If you're saying to yourself, "Um, I think that we've seen these things before," well, you're right. It's been over a decade since search engines like pioneered natural language query on the Web, and social media sites such as LinkedIn have had far more extensive social network queries based on their more detailed profiles since its inception for about as long as that. So please, let's not get overwhelmed by information science that's old hat, for the most part. Moreover, the queries that you're targeting are based on people who are a part of your social network. So claiming that this exposes billions of people to a search is only valid if you have billions of people in your social network or who are interested in a particular topic. For the most part it's more akin to a sophisticated contacts lookup feature.

Moreover, it intentionally doesn't include content from the Web. As The New York Times put it in their review: "Its search tool is based on the premise that the data within Facebook is enough and that its users will have little reason to venture outside its blue walled garden. What they cannot find inside the garden, its search partner, Bing, a Microsoft product, will help them find on the Web." In other words, this is meant quite intentionally to infer that information about your social graph can only find relevance within the walls of Facebook's little world.

However, at least for the moment Facebook's feature does give it somewhat of a leg up in its growing competition with Google's growing Google+ community. Google's main search engine tops the Web, of course, and Google+ content from social contacts in Google+ are integrated into Google's search results by default. And this, too, has a natural language interface, one that isn't hobbled by trying to fake a formatted query via natural language. It's also worth noting that Google+ has similar lookups of one's social network with simpler queries. If I type in "music" into to the Google+ search box, for example, the autocomplete search feature automatically brings up a listing of post, people and communities in my network that relate to this topic. Add on a little natural language fluff and it could look just like Facebook's tool.

Upgrading Google+ search for even more powerful results wouldn't be too hard for Google to do, given that Google+ profiles have more in-service data fields than Facebook and it also has the benefit of pointing to more content on the open Web than Facebook. Unlike Facebook, Google seems to use Google+ more as a Web content relevance indicator than as a walled garden, so while its search is powerful, Google is not so intent on keeping people inside Google+ as a walled garden - they want you to find good content on the Web, because, after all, that's where their ads are and where their indexing strengths lie.

So there's no doubt that Facebook's Graph Search is a necessary upgrade, and a good one. But I have strong doubts as to whether it's going to be sufficient in and of itself to make Facebook that much more a valuable site. The data that it can leverage is powerful, but its inability to integrate effectively with people's Web presences and interests would seem to be a strong minus, one that's not likely to be addressed any time soon. Facebook is indeed trying to be a destination that obviates the need for the Web as much as possible, and in this it is just another "big media" play and not very social. Real social media acknowledges that we post things all over the place, and that this is OK. So kudos to Facebook for finally putting an indexed search on the Web site. Please let us know when there's a real breakthrough, though.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Elsevier Acquires Knovel for Smart SciTech Content Aggregation

I've been privileged to know folks at both Knovel and Elsevier for many years, so it's with great pleasure that I read today about Elsevier's acquisition of Knovel. Knovel has been hard at work for the past decade acquiring the rights to a huge corpus of scientific journals, reference data sources and other key publications that it carves up into useful, searchable chunks of knowledge. Need to search for literature on a chemical compound based on its molecular structure? Knovel's got it. Need to explore graphs of viscosity data interactively to think about the properties of a substance? Covered.

Knovel has listened carefully to scientists and other users of scientific reference materials in applied sciences, and continued to refine both the collection and the interface for using its content year after year. Now it has amassed such a wide range of information that's so searchable and usable that it's hard to ignore - and hard to replicate if you want to get into the game of smart content search and aggregation. While Elsevier has been hard at work trying to improve its own content aggregation services, ultimately its efforts have been stymied at the level of how the actual information sources are structured. You can find clever ways to search for journal articles, but at the end of the day, if the journal that you retrieve is still just a paper-formatted heap of words and images, then you haven't necessarily accelerated your subscriber's productivity all that much.

Knovel technologies help to close that productivity gap significantly, enabling people working in applied sciences to consider alternatives more rapidly and to develop innovations more rapidly, instead of having to muck around with journals, spreadsheets and the like. Just point, ciick, calculate automatically and be done with it. Knovel offers one of the very few platforms that really does make significant changes to the formatting and usability of scientific content to the point that it can be more usable and productive content. That makes its extensive library of sources one of the most powerful tools available for scientific content aggregation. For many publishers, Knovel looked like a niche productivity play for many years. Now it's the leading paradigm for the evolving SciTech editorial model. Kudos to Elsevier for jumping on the opportunity - it's a platform that will be a great value leader for years to come.