Humans Beat Technology Every Time

Two fundamental mistakes are made repeatedly with regard to content on the Web. The first is that volume is what it’s about — the more content you have, the better. The second is that technology will automatically organize and publish content in a professional manner.

On September 28, 2001, Contentville closed its doors. In 2000, Contentville had raised $120 million with the objective of being the ultimate resource for content on the Web. It wanted to sell everything content related, from books to theses.

Contentville was not unlike a venture by bookstore, Fat Brain. Called eMatter, it was going to bring the world all the wonderful unpublished work that nasty publishers wouldn’t publish. Like Contentville, eMatter found that there weren’t enough people out there willing to buy this wonderful, esoteric content.

The Industrial Age dealt with issues of scarcity. The scarcer something was, the more valuable it was. The more you had of something, generally, the better off you were. Let’s say I had 10 bags of coal in my shed. Would I feel happier if I had 20 bags? Of course.

That’s the way too many people think about content. They can’t get Industrial-Age thinking out of their heads. Twenty “bags” of content is better than 10, right? Wrong.

Things digital don’t suffer so much from scarcity as from glut. There’s way too much content and way too little time to read it. When people hear that there are 550 billion documents on the Internet, they don’t jump for joy but cry in despair. And yet so many Web sites still behave like coal merchants rather than content publishers.

Over the last couple of years, the Google search engine has become the most popular on the Web, while others, such as AltaVista and Excite, have fallen on hard times. But why has Google succeeded where so many others have failed? Simple really. It depends as much on editors as on technology to deliver its results.

Google rates a Web site based on how many other Web sites have linked to it. A link is an editorial decision. Someone from site A decides that site B has quality information and is worth linking to. Millions of these editorial decisions have been made on the Web, and Google taps into this mass editorial intelligence.

This is human power. This is people deciding what is good and what is not. This is what the vast majority of the general public wants. People want a select content offering. Instead of 20 bags of content, they’d much prefer 1 bag that contains the really good stuff.

It will be a long, long time before technology can even approach making the quality editorial decisions that professional editors can. The Web is an oozing graveyard of Web sites that felt they could throw technology at the content problem.

If you think it’s bad on the public Web, it’s nothing compared to what you will find on intranets. Most that I come across are content monstrosities, bulging with masses of badly organized, unreadable, unreliable content dross.

For anyone who wants to make a success of a Web site, there is one decision that must be made before any other: Hire an editor.

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