Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Is the "Content Web" Really Dying?

By Dennis D. McDonald

It’s fashionable these days to point to Facebook’s ascendancy as why Google-type search’s dominance of the Internet is over.

If I understand correctly, search algorithms are less effective than “friends” in helping people locate information. Because of this, Google is running scared to add “social” services to stave of inevitable drops in search-related ad revenue.

It’s a compelling argument. This is what Ben Elowitz says in The Web Is Shrinking. Now What?:

I have been calling it the “document Web,” based on how Google and other Web architectures view its pages as documents, linked together. But increasingly, it might as well be called the “searchable Web” since it’s accessed predominantly as a reference, and navigated primarily via search.

And it’s becoming less relevant.

In the last year, Facebook’s share of users’ time online grew from one out of every 13 minutes of use nationwide, to one out of every eight. In aggregate, that means the document Web was down more than half a billion hours of use (that’s more than 800 lifetimes) this March versus last March. And in financial terms, that represents a lost opportunity of $2.2 billion in advertising inventory that didn’t exist this year.

Let’s assume the numbers are correct and the searchable “document web” is declining in usage relative to usage of the “non-document web.” (I’d prefer the term “searchable content web” over “document web” but I’ll leave that for another post.)

It’s important for us to understand what we are trying to measure here. For example, if I understand Elowitz’ reported numbers, an hour spent on chatting with friends on Facebook is being counted the same as an hour spent, say, on searching the web via Google for information on a child’s life threatening health problem.

What, you say that such a comparison is not fair, that there’s no way of knowing how serious the discussions are on Facebook and that spending an hour on Google searching for medical information is just as likely to expose you to good information as to unscrupulous aggregation sites advertising irrelevant pharmaceuticals because SEO tricks are being employed?

That’s my point. There’s no way for the average person to know, and Google is not about to reveal the algorithm it uses to support Search. Furthermore — and I see this as a potential downside depending on how Google+ services are integrated with Google Search — I’m not sure that I want the behavior or characteristics of my friends or business colleagues influencing search results in areas where they have no particular competence, interest, or experience. 

Ah, but then you say, isn’t that already the case? Don’t you think that Google, when it knows even basic characteristics such as your geographic location, is bound to filter your search results differently from  someone with a similar question who lives somewhere else?

That’s true. Search results are already being filtered to reflect what Google thinks it knows about you. Why should that be treated any differently from taking advantage of what you and your friends are chatting about on Twitter or (were it indexed by Google) Facebook to color your search results?

This misses the point of the basic theme of this article: internet traffic patters are changing. What we used to call the web is becoming much more tied into all aspects of our lives, not just the narrow purposes of searching for information that exists somewhere out there on a “page” or in a “document.”

As more transactions and behaviors occur with web mediation and as signals generated by this become another source for describing people in terms of their characteristics and behaviors, it’s inevitable that this additional information will figure into how certain types of services are delivered.

That this results in a de-emphasis on document content certainly does have business implications for many folks, not just Google and publishers. And I’m not convinced thats’ a bad thing. After all, why go to a document to get information if you can go to the author? Why spend time using secondary search and retrieval systems when you can chat directly with a group of experts?

A more important question concerns how we ensure access to quality  information and to the expertise of the people who create quality content. Frankly, I don’t think that the numbers of hours people are online is very useful without also knowing what people are doing when they are online and, more importantly, what they are doing as a result of their web behavior. Are they seeking out useful information? Are they creating art? Are they forming relationships? Or are they just shooting the breeze or killing time? Without answers to these types of questions we can’t really tell what the impacts are of the shifting web landscape.

Still, I wouldn’t count Google out just yet …

Copyright (c) 2011 by Dennis D. McDonald

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