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Don't Believe What You Read

  |  March 1, 2001   |  Comments

Is today's Internet damaging the integrity of content? There's some great stuff, sure. However, it's vastly outweighed by badly written, out-of-date, inaccurate, and sometimes deliberately misleading content.

Content is a song. You can take years composing it, but if nobody listens to it, it has no value. Content is a novel. You can take years writing it, but if nobody reads it, it has no value. Content is an idea that wants to change the world. If nobody believes in the idea, then it won't change anything.

Today's Internet is damaging the integrity of content. People are more skeptical about content online than offline. People basically view the Internet as a dumping ground for content. There's some great stuff, sure. However, it is vastly outweighed by badly written, out-of-date, inaccurate, and sometimes deliberately misleading content. A recent Forrester Research study found that 75 percent of respondents felt that online content was of "poor quality."

There are two basic forces at play here. The first relates to having professional publishing processes in place. The second relates to having ethical publishing processes. I've written a lot about professional publishing processes. It's down to creating, editing, and publishing quality content, and removing or archiving that content after its "sell by" date. It's the issue of ethical publishing that I'd like to deal with here.

We're all in love with free content on the Web, but nothing of value is free. Somebody, somewhere along the line, paid for that content. The question is: What value does this person want to derive from it by getting you to read it? If you go to a business's Web site and read its content, then the objective is obvious. It's there to sell you its product or to solve a problem for you with regard to something you have bought.

The issues are less clear-cut when you go to a Web site whose business is content. Under pressure to drive revenue, content Web sites can turn to what is called an "advertorial." This is content that is directly sponsored by an advertiser. It may be a subtle or hard sell for that advertiser.

Joseph Gomes, writing for Brill's Content in January, stated that "The distinction between advertising and editorial can get especially fuzzy on the Internet." He gave an example of a recent Suzuki promotion that ran in Sports Illustrated. In the print version, at the top of the page, appeared the words "Special Advertising Feature." On the Web site, however, no such words appeared.

"AOL Time Warner: Newsstand or Publisher?" was the title of a February 21 article by David Shook in Business Week. "From the Web's beginning, in 1995, a debate has simmered over the ethics of online journalism," he writes. This is not just a debate about online journalism. It is a debate about the integrity of online content. If we as readers come to distrust what we read online, then the integrity of the entire medium comes into question.

There are minimum standards that print and other content must adhere to. There seem to be few standards for Web content at the moment. Oracle is currently claiming on its Web site that it has captured $1 billion in savings by becoming an "e-business."

"This is the third time Ellison has made this $1 billion savings claim, which was refuted as hollow on both previous occasions," Barry Goffe, of Microsoft, told eWEEK recently. Of course, Microsoft's .NET is competing with Oracle's 11i Web-based business software, and Goffe is group manager of .NET.

"Don't believe what you read, particularly what you read on the Internet" may become an unfortunate motto for the online world. If so, everybody loses.

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Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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