When Community Is Search

Today’s column originally ran on January 12, 2009.

In 1999, in the golden mists of SEO (define) time, we picked up an offline marketing mantra: content is king. We would chant this into the ears of our clients and in the hallowed halls of the most revered SEO forums. What’s more, search engine reps would issue forth the same at conferences. It was such a magical time. We created lots of text and got it crawled.

But in 1999, there wasn’t a great deal else we could do. People were on 56K dial-up modems, thinking they’d never need another modem for the rest of their lives. Advanced Web sites had a lot of static text, some images, and, for the most advanced sites, maybe an animated GIF file of a cartoon character taking off his hat and putting it back on. Thrilling stuff it was.

Then in 2000, Andrew Odlyzko of AT&T Labs Research wrote, “Content Is Not King.” The paper’s premise is that more time should be spent on ensuring connectivity than developing content. Interestingly, the killer app at the time was e-mail, not search, and keeping people connected was all-important to the Internet’s growth.

So where does that put us in our brave new, always-on broadband age?

If we’re totally connected, content must be back on the throne. But in a Bill Clinton type of way, that really depends on what the word “content” means.

During the course of my online career, I’ve spent a lot of time working with Web content creators. Many SEO firms have been laser-focused on text as search engine crawler fodder and therefore mainly employed copywriters as content creators.

Many times I’ve asked content creators, “What is content?” And usually the answer is a variation on the compelling-copy theme. Text, text, and more text. That’s what search engines need. Even now, when I ask the question, I’m likely to get the same answer.

Content created purely for a search engine crawler in the hope that it will eventually find its way to an end user. That’s so 1999.

SEO’s glory days are over. And we should get over it. Nobody is online looking for content. Information and knowledge management professionals are all the more considering the end user experience. More to the point, they’re considering the end user contribution. It’s more about an exchange as the new drivers behind business success online are based on community and customer experience management. Not a text-based document for a dumb crawler to analyze.

For sure back in the day, the best way to connect with a customer was through search. Correction, back in the day the best way to connect with your potential customer was through e-mail. And then search.

Trying to find an audience was difficult. But now, your audience is everywhere online. Ever heard of Facebook? What about MySpace? LinkedIn? Twitter? In fact, thousands and thousands of communities have developed all over the Web.

But that’s not search, Mike, you say. And this is supposed to be a search column.

Too damn right, it’s search!

If I go to any community and pose a question about anything, from a life-threatening disease to a new brand of toothpaste, I’ll get an answer. And that, without a shred of a doubt, is search. That is information retrieval in its purest sense.

In June 2008, a Forrester Research report stated that half of adults and two-thirds of youths on social networking sites often tell their social network friends about their interest in products.

No one visits a public-facing Web site to get content. Depending on their information needs, they come for information and guidance, offers and recommendations, and advice and reviews. They come to be informed, inspired, engaged, entertained, and connected with others.

And what does that have to do with feeding a mindless bot a ton of text a day?

I carry an iPhone, even though I hate the infernal little beast. I have at least a dozen apps on it now. I live in New York and spend a whole lot of time wining, dining, and socializing. And the most useful little toy I have is the OpenTable app. No matter where I am in the city, I open the app, it finds my location exactly, then lists all the restaurants surrounding my current location. I have only one word for it: marvelous!

And you know what? It beats the pants of Google’s local search. It’s as much about search as Google is.

So should we be still thinking crawler 1999 and that old content? Or should we be thinking audience, engagement, and end user experience?

This is a good debate. Seriously. Content for crawlers? Rich end user experience? Click on “Post a Comment,” and let me know what you think.

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