Brands are arbiters of quality on the Internet

June 29, 2009

Knowledge, news, music, opinion shall be free (as unfettered). That was the promise of the Internet, and bloggers were expected to deliver on that promise.

What followed was utter chaos, irresponsible reporting, plagiarizing without batting an eyelid, and an overload of information. The dark underbelly of society was showing on the Internet.

Wikipedia suddenly became less reliable. People very often edited entries on Wikipedia to suit their personal agendas, and the users’ only hope for accuracy is that some other guy got there before him and corrected the inaccuracy.

Folks, even bloggers, now need help to negotiate the labyrinth of the Internet to find information that is quotable and credible. Hence most bloggers now quote what are considered long-established credible sources, such as The New York Times, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal, and a few new online credible sources of information.

A lot has been written about Twitter. Like email when it started, Twitter is a great way to get the message out. But as spammers and frauds started using email, the message was increasingly questionable.

That is happening to Twitter as well……I don’t know who is my source of information on Twitter, whether he is reliable, whether he was at all in Iran while updating me on the youth unrest in that country after the elections.

Most of the time it is not hard core information I get on Twitter, but some vague reports from equally diffuse people on what they are eating now, how they are feeling at the moment, or what car they are driving.

Many times people themselves are filtering information to put them in a good light, or promote themselves. After all this is the age of personal brand building, and any channel is useful.

In 2007, I had written that although the Internet had made expression free, whether the expression was in the form of writing, art or music, there would still be needed gatekeepers to the Internet who would separate the wheat from the chaff.

See article titled ” Finding gold on the Net is a long shot”.

It was expected then that new brands would emerge to play counsellors and guides to Internet users. The “Long Tail” had created opportunities of all sorts of online purveyors of music, news, and other forms of art, by lowering the cost of inventory, distribution, and marketing.

But the gold rush to the Internet left people gasping for some guidance on how to avoid the trash. Already they were suffering from clutter and information overload.

eMusic, for example, focused on the “Long Tail”, and tried to build a music download brand around that. Leading newspapers set up blogs aiming to be arbiters of quality in both formal news reporting, and the more informal world of blogs.

The upshot is that a mix of new and old brands have emerged as gatekeepers to the Internet. That makes navigating the Internet for quality and reliable stuff more reliable.

But to a large extent it has also robbed the Internet of its fierce democracy. Once again the big brands – a few – will decide what goes through its filters. Once again smaller purveyors of content will have to kow-tow to the big brands or go unnoticed, and end up in some corner on YouTube.

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Google’s power is exaggerated

October 23, 2007

In the old days, if you wanted to research a topic, or if you wanted to find out if a medicine is good for your kid, or if you wanted to buy a music system, you had to hop various locations ranging from a visit to the library, to a visit to the drug store for a long chat with a knowledgeable person there, to a visit to the local electronics store.

Along came Google Search and changed all that. I can research a topic, find out all the information available on a medicine, and comparison shop a music system, if I use Google. I need to have a lot of patience, as most of the results thrown up by Google Search are totally irrelevant to my immediate needs.

However intelligent Google may have made search, it is still only an algorithm fetching information from a whole variety of sources, based on the keywords I have typed.

With Google having the dominant share for search, it gives Google enormous power on how information, including commercial information, flows to the user. That is one of the reasons publishing houses are increasingly seeing Google as a competitor for advertising revenue. Rather than pay an online newspaper for an advertisement of their latest laptop, a vendor may be better off bidding for keywords that would ensure that their advertisement shows up whenever somebody does a search for “laptop”.

Does this mean that Google will be the ultimate arbiter of what a consumer buys ? I think that would be exaggerating Google’s role as a search engine. When I am searching the net using Google, all that Google throws up is a lot of text and links containing my keywords. Google Search cannot provide context. More importantly it cannot provide guidance.

Even as Google throws open the web to users looking for information, it also floods you with irrelevant information. What that means is that increasingly people will need gatekeepers who will sift the good stuff from the not-so-good, and the lousy.

Recognizing this opportunity there are a number of web sites and blogs that position themselves as buyer guides to everything from cameras to music systems, to automobiles to gardening gear. Not unexpectedly these sites have ads placed by Google on them, as well as ads from vendors.

So humongous is the web today, that we now need a new super-set of gatekeeper sites that will guide us through these various comparison shopping and peer review web-sites. How do I know whether a site is recommending a laptop from a particular brand, because that brand has long –term advertising contracts with the web site ? What do I know about the integrity or for that matter the maturity and qualifications of the reviewers ?

In the final analysis, it will be the well-known brands that will provide us our guide-posts. For laptops, for example, we are more likely to go to sites like Cnet.com or PCWorld.com to make an informed choice.

Google Search, and those sponsored links Google puts on top and on the right hand side every time you search for a term, may however be relevant when folks are buying a product they already know well, a product with either a known brand or well-known specifications. Then people are only looking for the online vendor that can provide the product quickly and conveniently. If people are looking for anything more sophisticated than that, they will look for gatekeepers and editors to counsel and guide, a role Google Search is ill-equipped to play.

Google can also ill-afford to be partial on search results whether in general search or in news. If I am looking for the latest news on Iraq, and I can’t get it from some of the better known and popular newspapers after I do a Google search, I will head straight to their web sites. If I search for laptops, and the key vendors or the key buyer guides I know are not listed, again I will look at Google as unreliable, and head for the web sites of the vendors I know.

If Google wants to make money on search it has to continue giving reliable results, and not play gatekeeper. Google knows that is not its role.

Related articles:
Finding gold on the Net is a long shot
Will you buy potatoes on the Net ?