When was the last time you asked family and friends a question like “Do you know when King xyz ruled over England?” and if you did, how often did you get the answer “Why don’t you just google it?” or “Wikipedia is your friend!” or they may have pointed you to the useful site www.lmgtfy.com.
Depending on your age you will remember quite well how a world without Google and broad Internet access looked like. Each family had at least one encyclopedia on the shelf and depending on personal interests of the individual family members a lot of specialised books on art, archeology, history or biology and so on and so forth. In school or during your studies you had to rely on your book shelf to answer your questions. If you did not have the right book at hand, you could either buy it or more often so you needed to go to the library. Looking back it feels like I was living in the middle ages but it’s only a decade ago.
The Internet, Google and Wikipedia have massively changed the way we get information. This information may be trivial or education related. Some people say this leads to dumbing down mankind or at least the Internet itself, it might even lead to digital dementia something I will write about in another post. But today let’s take a look at how people retrieve information and therefore knowledge on the Internet.
Apparently, more and more people have started typing in so called “long term keywords” which means instead of searching for “King George V” people search for specific answers like “When lived King George V”. This says a lot about the mindset of today’s Internet users as we expect to get the right answer from our search right away. I quite like the comparison with Star Trek where crew members ask the computer all the time and get their answers instantaneously.
With this in mind specialised start-ups like eHow, HowCast, About.com and others started creating videos and how-to articles to deliver answers to those questions frequently asked by Internet users. The monetization was then done by displaying advertisements along the texts or as overlay on the videos. It all ended up in an arms race and the sites created thousands of new sites everyday, most of those with low quality content which led Google to do an algorithm change in order to filter out such so called “content farms”.
Nevertheless, it stays a fact that people type in these questions and that they expect to get an answer. I recently did a little experiment on my blog. The article with the most views is one I wrote over two years ago, still it is in the top ten articles of my blog every single month. The title says it all “How to memorize vocabulary”. I then tried out whether it was possible to recreate this phenomenon with a new article. It has the title “How to learn French or other languages in 2011” where the “How to learn French” part is the one that aims at attracting traffic through search engines. Long story short, it worked again and even pretty well.
The problem is that basically no “serious” education 2.0 or established organization took notice of this trend or dismissed it as sensationalism. For this reason people now have to cope with content only created to attract views in order to generate revenue through advertisements. That in this case the main focus is more on the question how to attract users and not so much on answering user’s questions, is obvious.
I think here is a big chance for start-ups that are serious about delivering high quality answers to those questions. The goal needs how to be to attract people via search engines in the first place but then more importantly how to keep those users and make them come back directly to the site because they trust the content and find their answers there. To my mind, Wikipedia is a good example here as many people go directly to the site to look for an answer instead of searching for it via a search engine.
This is truly a fascinating discussion and those of you interested in digging deeper into the topic might be interested in two interviews I did recently with two companies affected by the latest change in the Google algorithm, Mahalo and TeachStreet. You will listen to Jason Calacanis, the founder and CEO of Mahalo and David Schapell, the founder and CEO of TeachStreet who face the same problem but have distinct opinions and therefore come up with different conclusions for their individual companies.
What could the future of search and information distribution look like? There are two examples that excite me at the moment.
Apture either works as a browser plugin or webmasters can embed a code on their website or blog to enhance their content with the Apture feature. What it allows the visitor is to mark any word or sentence on the website and then get further information on it. This information can come from the website itself, YouTube, Wikipedia or any other source on the Internet. This is of course a great tool when reading an article that references to an information you are not familiar with. You then simply mark this part and receive further information without leaving the actual site which is great for research and learning.
Qwiki’s goal is “to forever improve the way people experience information”. Coming back to my Star Trek analogy at the beginning of this post, Qwiki delivers information in a new and engaging way with pictures, videos and spoken text pretty much like the personal computer of the future many of us were dreaming of. Like Apture Qwiki gives its users the possibility to dig deeper into the information, learning more about other aspects around the question asked. If you asked for Leonardo Da Vinci, why not learn more about the Renaissance or Florence?