Type the word "blog" into Google's search box, and you'll receive a whopping 515 million search results, nearly twice as many as you receive for "sex."
Love 'em or hate 'em, blogs are the real deal. Even if we deflate the hype and ignore the overly optimistic prognostications of the blog A-list evangelists, we still have an unmistakable, off-the-charts development with huge, ever-evolving implications.
2005 was a milestone year for the blogosphere, even more so than 2004. Why is that? There are more good reasons than this brief column can do justice to, but here are the key headlines.
Blogs hit the big numbers and go global. By numbers alone, blogs continued to penetrate in ways few of us would have imagined in 2004. Blog search engines Technorati and BlogPulse alone index 22 and 20 million blogs, respectively, and both are probably off by about 25 percent. If you count Web juggernaut MySpace pages as blogs (many do), the numbers skyrocket to new levels. Granted, many blogs expire or fade away, but in the aggregate blogs are experiencing a major growth trend, powered in no small measure by teens, nearly half of whom have created their own blogs.
On the global front, according to FeedMap's visual tracking of blog origins, English-language blogs from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia are increasingly joined by blogs from Malaysia, India, Taiwan, Turkey, Japan, various European countries, and other places around the globe.
It was a year of unrivaled simplicity. In 2005, everything got a lot simpler in the blogosphere, further prying open the door for the average Joe, even Grandma, to walk through. All the major blog tool creators -- TypePad, WordPress, Blogger -- launched simpler, more convenient utilities, with more templates, great instructions, easier ways to upload photos and videos, and a just-check-this-box mentality. Simplicity also powered a shift from blogs as diaries to blogs as personal organizers.
It was the year multimedia and CGM2 broke loose. The emergent "add water and stir" platform helped power an important, highly noticeable shift from text to multimedia, or what I call consumer-generated multimedia (CGM2). Photo-sharing platforms and moblogs (define) saw incredible growth, and blog tools made it easier to integrate all manner of multimedia, evident in a new "here's my baby" video tool I recently discovered. Rocketboom found new audience, and Unilever tested a virtual on-the-road online reality show that leverages vlogs (define).
Blogs go from media police to copy cops. In 2005, traditional media continued its fixation on blogs as media cops, the outing of Dan Rather is the most celebrated example. But bloggers also played a growing, conspicuous role as copy cops. Bloggers embarrassed companies that didn't measure up to product positioning, publicly critiqued bogus copy claims, outed shills, initiated Jeff-Jarvis style outbursts against customer service, revolted against "bait and switch" e-commerce tactics, and more. Even Gawker Media, built on a successful ad model, concluded it was OK to critique and expose brands through its new Consumerist blog.
Brands blogged, but the biggest rewards were cultural. Despite all the hype, no single brand blog changed the game. Even GM's FastLane Blog, ranked in BlogPulse's top 500, barely moved the needle from a traditional ad reach perspective. But it did succeed in catalyzing fresh thinking and a new mindset in corporations about conversations. Most companies still struggle with managing more flexible, agile service interfaces with consumers. The advent of brand-sponsored blogs (however lame) and employee blogs (however controversial) shifted rules and changed the mindset.
Apple takes a bite from the blogosphere. 2005 saw Apple's stock price increase exponentially, and blogs played an important role in keeping the brand visible, if not dominant, in the eyes of consumers. The white headphones have become a family crest for people who "get it," but, by exporting playlists, the iPods have become a new form of consumer-generated media (CGM) itself. Interestingly, iPod users create and share CGM at dramatically higher rates than all other consumers. Consequently, the brand reaped massive viral gains around new product launches, especially the video iPod.
Podcasting rises, old forms stay the same. Podcasting got plenty of play in 2004, topping Wikipedia's charts as a frequently searched term. But it clearly found a tipping point this year, with "USA Today" front-page headlines and Adam Curry migrating from innovative DJ to venture-funded entrepreneur. This year saw a proliferation of long-tail consumer-generated audio content, but the equally interesting story is the old form -- traditional radio -- didn't die. Instead, it found new life. Radio stations such as NPR emerged as a popular source for listening later, and other radio stations simply reformat existing content.
The big boys jump into the game. For a while, we wondered where they were, but eventually all the big boys jumped into the consumer blog space. Yahoo initially primed the pump with early use of RSS feeds, then migrated to offering blog-like publishing tools. Google launched a long-anticipated blog search engine. MSN also moved more aggressively in this space, and AOL introduced blogs and the "Live Web."
The (media) empire strikes back. By and large the media peacefully coexisted with bloggers this year, especially those in the A-list community. But writer Dan Lyons of "Forbes" crashed the party with a hostile, take-no-prisoners cover story accusing bloggers of being a "lynch mob." Bloggers freaked, so much so that at least one PR blogger, Jeremy Pepper, suggested the intense reaction proved "Forbes" correct. Whether or not you buy "Forbes"' article, one thing's clear: in the blogosphere, no one's immune to scrutiny, including the bloggers themselves.
Did we go too far? Some blogs simply went too far. That pushed companies and organizations into creating new policies, from adopting employee blogging policies to outright bans on blog activity. "Ad Age" added fuel to the fire with a hotly debated article implying employees waste time reading blogs. Microsoft and IBM said, "Blog away!" And Apple laid down the gauntlet with "Think Secret" on purported blog leaks. The military, meanwhile, awakened to the reality of soldier-generated media (SGM) and struggled to figure out the right balance between blogs as battlefield-based boredom-inoculators and blogs as intelligence leaks.
Advertising is a hit, but it temps sin, spam, and splogs. All manner of new blog ad models popped onto the scene in 2005, and some blog networks proved so successful, they were sold to the likes of AOL. There were downsides. Google AdWords, for instance, made it so easy to embed advertising in blogs that a whole new type of blog was born: the splog (define). Splog posts spiked as high as 25 percent of all blog posts.
The PR industry gains first-mover advantage. PR firms generally had more to say and contribute on the blog front than either interactive shops or traditional ad agencies. Many of the higher impact bloggers that captured marketers' attention owed their background to PR, and I'm talking well beyond just Steve Rubel. Key shops such as Edelman, Ketchum, and Weber Shandwick developed robust practices in blog monitoring and word-of-mouth management, while standalone players like BL Ochman single-handedly led innovative brand-meets-blog programs like Budget's Scavenger Hunt.
If you're still scratching your head, one last recommendation: start your own blog. Seeing is believing. It will immediately help you connect the dots on what's happening in the fast-evolving blogosphere.
Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."