When it Comes to Search, How Low Can You Go?

I came back mid-week from the American Magazine Conference, where I heard Paul Saffo talk about the future of content, including what search tool might eventually trump Google. He introduced the term “quantum of search” – the lowest level or most granular search possible – and used it to say that the future of search will depend on your ability to return the precise results needed for each and every search.

While Saffo counseled editors and publishers in attendance to develop the lowest level “quantum of search” possible, he stopped short of saying something that is in my mind directly related: publishers have a tremendous advantage in defining what good search looks like.

Figuring out how to accurately respond to a narrow search requires intimate knowledge of both content and market. Search informs an increasingly niche-driven publishing model, a prediction that Mike Shatzkin and others have advanced, but good search is more than just an alogorithm. As we migrate to a more richly defined, “semantic” web, content that has been given meaning through well-designed editorial processes will not only be more easily sold and repurposed; it will be more easily found by the people who are most likely to benefit from finding it.

So, publishers worried about a content glut have at least two opportunities to define themselves and redefine their role. The first opportunity comes in organizing around audience-valued content niches. Generally, lawyers don’t go to Google to find legal information, and in a more niche-driven world, vertical content plays will be increasingly preferred. Even if I try Google first, the trusted vertical niche with deep content should be high on the list of returned links. As publishers, we need to make sure we are there.

The second opportunity comes in using the tools we are examining here – structured content, appropriately tagged – to capture the editorial insight and rich meaning that is lost when we render content to print books and magazines. Investing now to keep that meaning and provide it in a form linked to the content will help publishers demonstrate primacy in defining Saffo’s “quantum of search.” The discipline of XML-driven workflows can capture that insight.

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