Summary: The fads and big deals that get the press coverage are not important for running a workhorse website. To serve your customers, it's far better to emphasize simplicity and quality than to chase buzzwords.
Because we're in the midst of Web Bubble 2.0 , I decided to dust off some of my Bubble 1.0 columns and retool them for current conditions.
In 1997, I wrote an Alertbox called The Fallacy of Atypical Web Examples . In it, I complained about the excessive attention focused on a few highly prominent Web projects that didn't represent the vast majority of websites. I also warned against emulating these big and famous examples.
The sidebar, Stories from 1997 Revisted , looks at some of those well-hyped stories in light of recent developments. Indeed, as it turns out, most websites have had to follow very different paths than those trod by the much-discussed sites. Back then, designers would have been better served by focusing on their own unique circumstances, rather than listening to the Bubble 1.0 hype.
And now? History repeats itself. There is endless coverage of a few atypical stories in the trade press, mainstream media, and even on specialized Internet-focused websites. Once again, it's worth remembering: your site is different from the ones in big stories . Focus on fixing the basics to get a simple and communicative website. Simple steps don't get hyped, but they drive much more business value for the average site than the issues that everyone writes about.
Will AOL Team Up With Google or Microsoft? (Hype Level: Blue)
This story's hype has somewhat subsided, but it was going strong for some time. Whether AOL teams up with one search engine or another is irrelevant for anyone outside the actual deal. It will be equally irrelevant next month, when the overhyped story again features a big company looking for a search-engine partner.
AOL's choice doesn't matter because it makes no difference to your SEM (search engine marketing) strategy.
Each searcher represents a unique selling opportunity . When Joe Schmoe enters a query for "vacation Mexico" you'd better get an ad or an organic listing in his face if you're selling Mexican vacations.
Running fancy ads on one search engine won't get you any of Joe's vacation dollars if he's searching elsewhere. Thus, you need to advertise on all the search engines -- or at least those with enough market share to be worth the few minutes required to copy over the text ads and targeted keywords lists from your other campaigns.
Your SEM strategy shouldn't change one whit when a particular search engine gains a few percent in market share. Yes, you're likely to pay them a bit more because they'll deliver more clicks. But your only strategic decision is to decide how much to pay per click, which requires you to track conversions and calculate ROI. Once that's done, the budget will allocate itself depending on how many clicks each search engine delivers.
There is one twist on this story: Because the search engines attract different types of users, you'll likely experience different ROI on clicks from different search engines . You should thus specify different maximum bids for clicks on different sites.
AOL tends to have low-level users, so AOL clicks are likely to be worth less for B2B sites and high-end B2C sites. If you're selling diet pills, however, AOL clicks might be found money. While most sites should lower their bids on advertising networks that include AOL, some sites should actually bid more for these clicks. This is the only practical implication of where AOL is allied this month.
Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica (Hype Level: Yellow)
A recent study found that Wikipedia contains only slightly more errors than the Encyclopedia Britannica . While this might be bad news for EB's management, it's a misleading story.
First, while counting errors is easy, it's not sufficient for evaluating a publication's quality. Given time constraints, it's also important that a topic's coverage emphasizes the most important points so readers aren't bogged down in minutiae. Writing style and clarity matter as well, as does point of view. All of these are more a matter of editorial judgment, and are not as easily scored as factual errors.
Luckily, we do have methods for judging content usability . Such methods involve letting a set of users loose on the information and seeing how well it supports typical tasks. Here, the tasks might be anything from writing a high school essay to understanding a bit of a country's history before going there on vacation. In any case, the point is: you must judge content relative to the readers and their needs. It's a usability question, and must be addressed with empirical studies.
Second, while it's impressive that Wikipedia has corralled so many people to write it for free, it's not a model that generalizes to corporate websites. You might be able to collect user-contributed content for a support area, and this is well worth looking into. But you can't get outsiders to write your product descriptions or news items for free.
Finally, the value of Wikis extends far beyond such highly publicized free-for-alls. Intranet Wikis, for example, are typically much more interesting. Several recent Intranet Design Annual winners employed Wikis for lightweight content management. Because these are internal solutions, you don't hear nearly as much about them. However, these practical Wikis are much more important than the overhyped ones: An intranet Wiki is an example of the trend toward simplified collaboration and non-bureaucratic workgroup support that will change the way we all work in the future.
The Wikipedia's most exciting aspect is that it's a highly interlinked hypertext . Most of the time, if you visit for one article, you end up reading five, because the richness of associative links lead you to more and more interesting information that you didn't even know you wanted. Sadly, the Web has generally lost its foundation as hypertext, and most sites offer only heavily regimented navigation that's tied into an official information architecture. Usually, there's little in the way of associative, "see also" links and local navigation. Wikipedia shows the benefits of reverting to the view of websites as hypertexts.
Now, if only someone would make a Wiki solution with great usability that average people could use to author strongly interlinked hypertexts. That would be something worth almost any level of hype. The way to knock out Microsoft Office is not to reimplement its feature set from two versions ago in a different programming language. We don't need bad copies -- we need collaborative authoring of hyperspaces as opposed to linear documents.
Will "Citizen Journalist" Bloggers Wipe Out MSM? (Hype Level: Orange)
If you work in the MainStream Media, this question surely seems very important, which is why floods of ink are spilled over it. But newspaper executives ought to spend more time worrying over what's happening to their classified advertising.
Classified ads are one of the two advertising forms that work on the Web (search ads are the other). In fact, as I said in 1997, classifieds are better on a computer than in print . Eventually, newspapers will lose this revenue stream, which was once their biggest source of income and underwrote their expensive newsgathering operations. Yes, newspaper owners who react in time may capture some online classifieds for their holding companies. But they'll unbundle those revenues from the company's news division because Web users go to classifieds as a separate task, not a side effect of reading the news. Classified revenues will thus be unavailable to underwrite news in the future.
In comparison, whether people decide to read some articles on individually operated websites -- which is really all that blogs are, in a business context -- is a much smaller problem. For coverage best suited to a first-in/first-out linear listing of stories, mainstream media can (and do) run their own blog-like subsites.
For businesses other than newspapers, the "bloggers vs. MSM" hype is of even less importance. If a blog has a big readership and covers your field seriously, then of course you should treat it like an equivalently sized print publication. You should grant such bloggers interviews, give them new product previews, and engage them with any other PR activity. Conversely, you should treat small blogs (i.e., most weblogs) like a tiny community newspaper in a town where you don't do business. Sure, you'll be nice to them, but you won't give them an hour of your CEO's time for an exclusive interview.
From a business perspective, it simply comes down to readership, not media type or whether a publication is owned by a corporation or run by an individual in their pajamas.
Finally, the properties of online media give rise to two related opportunities:
- Because you can use your website for PR , it's feasible to reach out to a broader segment of writers than those on staff at major newspapers and magazines. While doing individual interviews with small blogs isn't cost effective, you can give them access to your online PR information.
- Online media (whether blogs or MSM-owned websites) can link to your website when they cover you. This increases your search engine ranking and makes online coverage more valuable than coverage in a print publication with the same readership. Readers are more likely to follow the call to action a hyperlink implies than they are to track you down after reading an equivalent story about you in print. Thus, a blog with 100,000 readers is equivalent to a newspaper with 200,000 readers or more, assuming both are equally targeted to your preferred customer segments.
Google Stock Price (Hype Level: Red)
The number of column inches spilled over this topic is the most excessive of any over-hyped stories I discuss here. The price of GOOG is irrelevant for two reasons:
- If you work in an Internet profession, you shouldn't own Google stock in the first place. Diversification is the number one rule of investing: you shouldn't put your money into something highly correlated with your own job prospects. The month you're laid off is likely to be the same month that Google drops to a quarter of its current price -- that is, whenever the next big Internet recession hits. Think of somebody working at DoubleClick and investing in Excite in January 2000. Not a happy nest egg.
- Momentum-driven stock prices have little to do with underlying facts. Google announced record profits for Q4, and the stock dropped. Google lost $10B market cap the day its CFO said something that any fool would have known already: there are limits to growth, and the bigger a company gets, any given increment will amount to a smaller growth percentage.
Consider an analogy: if you worked in a tire company, should you obsess over Chevron's stock price? No. If Chevron went out of business, drivers would simply fill up their tanks at other gas stations. They'd drive just as much and put just as many miles on your tires.
In any case, don't worry about Google: running a search engine is a license to print money . Google can achieve any desired profitability level by closing down enough non-search projects. Google's search engine is not going away, no matter how much its stock rises or falls. Even if it did, the only impact on other sites would be to replace the GYM acronym with the less-sightly YMA. Users will still want to search, and they'll use whatever search engine is the best and fastest in any given year. That's all you need to know to plan your own Internet strategy.
Practical Websites (Not Hyped: Level Green)
The most important story of them all gets almost no hype: we're seeing more and more simple websites that meet customers' needs and thus generate substantial business value. Often the sites that do nothing special are the best: it's more important to focus on doing basic things right than to chase the latest fad.