Curated content for content, computing, and digital experience professionsals

Day: April 9, 2009

Permanent Transformation Needs to Follow Temporary Crisis: Reflections on BSeC 09

The 10th annual Buying and Selling eContent conference took place under sunny skies in Scottsdale, AZ, this week. The event brings together buyers and sellers of business information that drives decision-making within enterprises and supports research within institutions. There’s no doubt that the economic climate is putting pressure on the industry. But although budget cuts are certainly shaping 2009 packaging tactics, the industry faces far bigger challenges that will still exist when the economic pendulum swings back the other way. We spent much of the conference wondering when – and if – participants will make the commitment to innovation, roll up their sleeves, and begin the difficult work of transforming their businesses.

Anthea Stratigos, co-founder and CEO of Outsell, gave a stirring yet practical opening keynote. She used Outsell’s highly-regarded and well-researched annual outlook to explain why the industry isn’t simply experiencing a blip. She strongly reinforced the fact that things will be different on the other side. This isn’t news to industry watchers and participants. The need for fundamental change in the way the information industry works has long been acknowledged. We experienced the same buyer/seller tension at the NFAIS conference in February, where the “them versus us” attitude was right out there in the conference theme: “Barbarians at the Gate? The Global Impact of Digital Natives and Emerging Technologies on the Future of Information Services.” Gilbane’s own study on Digital Magazine and Newspaper Editions: Growth, Trends and Best Practices (May 2008) looks at some of the important issues in those markets. The current worldwide economic situation simply brings the need for revamping the industry into even clearer focus. Sellers want the buyers to acknowledge the value of the content they provide and be fairly compensated for it. Buyers want the sellers to provide that value – and more – for a lot less money. And everyone wrings his or her hands over new entrants into the workforce who expect to have access to quality content for little or no money, with tools that are easy to use and freely available.

At the same time, there exists a wealth of technologies that can be brought to bear to address these problems and enable industry transformation. The BSeC program provided good exposure to some of these, including dynamic publishing capabilities, structured content creation, software-as-a-service platforms that enable low-cost experimentation, social computing tools, and cloud computing services. Although there was lots of twittering going on (see #bsec09), the gulf between the buyers and sellers in the audience and the technologies and services being discussed on the speaker platform felt quite wide at times. As analysts trying to fulfill our market education mission, we found ourselves wondering how to narrow that gap.

One answer lies in the willingness to experiment and then report on successes and failures. Marty Kahn from ProQuest described insights emerging from Project Information Literacy, the goals of which are to “understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and ‘everyday use’ and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency in the digital age.” Kahn showed the current working version of  Summons, a Google-style interface for library data. It’s meant to aid students who perceive a higher value of information offered by a library, but are stymied as to how to get at those resources with quick, easy discovery. See a video on YouTube. John Girard from Clickability highlighted successful experiements by some of the company’s customers in paid-content markets, enabled by Clickability’s SaaS WCM solution.

Another answer lies in leveraging experience in other domains. While experiments get started and begin to show early results, the information industry can look outside itself to other content practice areas and seek experience from which it can learn. One such domain is technical documentation. One of the break-out topics for informal discussion was flexible content and how it can play a role in the transformation of the industry. It seemed like an early learning conversation for a number of the participants. The technologies and practices for creating, managing and publishing flexible content have been delivering value to technical documentation organizations throughout the world for some time. The information industry can leverage this deep expertise. 

The tools to innovate are readily available. The know-how exists in other industries and content-centric business practices. The necessity to transform the industry is apparent. We’ll be watching to see who steps up to embrace the change and experiment with the business models that can drive a transformed industry.

Search Fundamentals: Why Search Fails Us

When search fails me, the reasons may be hard to discover as a user but once on the inside of an enterprise I can learn a lot about what is going on. After listening to scores of business case studies, personal experiences and reading about rampant dissatisfaction with search it is discouraging to recognize the simple reasons for most negative outcomes.

Consider this scenario. I was attempting to find the address of the office of a major global platform vendor (one of the largest) that sells an entire suite of enterprise search and content management software products. One can usually find business location information from links on the home page of any corporate Web site or at least from the site representing the division one is visiting. But there was no such link for this corporate site. Then using the “search” box and later the “advanced search” option, trying a dozen variations of the division name, town in which the office is located, and product names I struck out on every query. All paths lead to a page with a single corporate address, or a couple of other remote addresses, and links to web pages that contained no address. Even those pages with addresses had no link to directions. I followed up with queries using Google and these got me back to the same dead-ends. Finally, I found the address through various online non-specific business directories.

This experience lead to a couple of conclusions about why my search failed: 1. The content does not exist; there is no such listing of locations. 2. The search engine is not properly tuned or metadata is not supplied with labels such as “locations,” “directions,” “business offices,” etc. The immediate solution for this case is to ensure that someone with practical business sense and usability competency has ownership of the overall web site experience to make sure that essential company data is available and easy to find. Or, if the company has made a conscious decision not to publish that information, at the least they should have a page stating the alternative for potential visitors as to how they can find their destination or to what office they can direct postal mail.

I had to two reasons for needing this information; one was a visit to an individual who was not available to give me the address in time to reach the office, and the second was a personal follow-up letter after someone from the company had been a speaker at an event I chaired. As things stand, I have been left with personal skepticism about the commitment of this company to build, produce and actually use content management or search products that will be truly responsive to needs of their potential buyers. When you don’t or can’t showcase your products, I question “why.” This is not a technology problem; it is a human factors and human resource allocation problem.

This brings me to some search fundamentals:

  • No content – If content that customers or employees expect to find is not included in explicit directives to the search engine for the repositories to be crawled and indexed, it will never be found.
  • No metadata – Any content lacking explicit language likely to be used by a searcher will probably not be found if it also lacks sufficient metadata.
  • Poor indexing or search rule base – If the content being searched is business documents without many unique contextual “hooks,” such as product names, technical terminology or topics of narrow interest, the search engine being used must be “smart” enough to glean the intent of the searcher from the context of query. In my case, I supplied a half a dozen terms to layer the context, tried them in different combinations, with and without quotations around phrases, but nothing worked.

Conclusion, if you really don’t want searchers to find what they want to find, it is not hard at all to compromise findability. I will not arrive at my destination and you won’t get any first class letters from me.