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When it Comes to Search, How Low Can You Go?

I came back mid-week from the American Magazine Conference, where I heard Paul Saffo talk about the future of content, including what search tool might eventually trump Google. He introduced the term “quantum of search” – the lowest level or most granular search possible – and used it to say that the future of search will depend on your ability to return the precise results needed for each and every search.

While Saffo counseled editors and publishers in attendance to develop the lowest level “quantum of search” possible, he stopped short of saying something that is in my mind directly related: publishers have a tremendous advantage in defining what good search looks like.

Figuring out how to accurately respond to a narrow search requires intimate knowledge of both content and market. Search informs an increasingly niche-driven publishing model, a prediction that Mike Shatzkin and others have advanced, but good search is more than just an alogorithm. As we migrate to a more richly defined, “semantic” web, content that has been given meaning through well-designed editorial processes will not only be more easily sold and repurposed; it will be more easily found by the people who are most likely to benefit from finding it.

So, publishers worried about a content glut have at least two opportunities to define themselves and redefine their role. The first opportunity comes in organizing around audience-valued content niches. Generally, lawyers don’t go to Google to find legal information, and in a more niche-driven world, vertical content plays will be increasingly preferred. Even if I try Google first, the trusted vertical niche with deep content should be high on the list of returned links. As publishers, we need to make sure we are there.

The second opportunity comes in using the tools we are examining here – structured content, appropriately tagged – to capture the editorial insight and rich meaning that is lost when we render content to print books and magazines. Investing now to keep that meaning and provide it in a form linked to the content will help publishers demonstrate primacy in defining Saffo’s “quantum of search.” The discipline of XML-driven workflows can capture that insight.

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  • You couldn’t be more right!

    The present belongs to the VSE Vertical Search Engines, but not individual ones that general users (non-specialist like lawyers) do not know about or recognize. They must be generically labeled and aggregated on one homepage. See Symbaloo dot com

    Charles Knight, editor
    AltSearchEngines dot com

  • One of the great things about magazines is that they view the world through a particular lens. Some topics are in the center of their interests (e.g., the mechanics of a golf swing for a golf magazine) and some things are far to the periphery (e.g., how to slice salmon). Magazines can leverage that point of view to deliver content that their readers want. A magazine can become the center of the search universe, whether the universe is described as their own content or as the world-wide web.
    Semantic-web technologies are useful for a large number of things, but the problem with using them for search is that users do not consistently slice the topics of their interest to match the topics picked by the XML designers. One fourth of the searches done on Google on any particular day have never been seen before, for example.
    Magazines can leverage their point of view with semantic search engines (e.g., Truevert, http://www.truevert.com) that take advantage of the semantics of the magazine, the editorial wisdom of its editors, and the power of intelligence to deliver flexible relevant information.

  • Thanks to Charles and Herbert for their comments. Although the idea my post started with a discussion at the American Magazine Conference, I may not have made it as clear that I feel the observations apply to books, as well. Editors of both book and magazine content are accomplished in deciding what content will be seen (published), but they increasingly need to think as much or more about how content is discovered and consumed. That’s the point at which XML can become compelling.