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Readers rule: content prescription in a buyers market

Years ago (some of the new things on the web may not even remember) there was a lot of smoke about portals. Portals were supposed to be good because they provided easy, digestible access to all information that a recent web surfer might need. They “prescribed” and reccomended this or that service or online shop (and charged them accordingly). They linked to other interesting resources. They pre-digested news much as traditional media usually did.

On the other hand, there was talk about “disintermediation”. The web would put consumer and producer in direct contact and eliminate the intermediaries that gather, filter and edit information (such as travel agents). Consumer would be king.

In fact, disintermediation never happened: new intermediaries rose and simply decided to use self-service (you pick the elements of your travel trip) and free social references (like Amazon’s buyer information, and travel sites’ travellers reviews) to save on the cost of editing and building offer.

Now, blogs are part of the same current. Information gets “disintermediated” and authors and “citizen journalists” appeal directly to readers. Big media companies don’t add enough value to justify their old role. Or do they?

Looking around a bit gives a clearer view. Many large “blogs” are indeed part of a large publishing company’s website; they have simply recicled the old Opinion columns. Other blogs are new, self-service media companies (the owner puts a half-paid team to type on a subject, why bother with trained staff and resources). Other are a cheeky, dynamic addition to a company’s PR website (like the old Scobleizer). Disintermediation? Not here.

There’s millions of blogs (like this one) that cater to a very reduced and select readership (that’s you). Some years ago, this would likely not have been written, or else gone into an article at the old Knowledgeboard.com (or even a humble forum post). If it did, it would reach hundreds of times as many readers as it is going to get.

In our field, this is how it goes. In more usual fields, I would be struggling to get readers to Digg these articles, or to use equivalent Spanish services, or to get people to mark emekaeme as a favourite at Technorati, or shifting to Feedburner to ease the visibility of the blog’s feed. The result of that is something like Amazon’s buyer advice: people interested in the same domains (as defined by relevant “tags”) find out about interesting blogs from those aggregation services. I’d be twiddling tags and prodding users, so as to get a mention in front of their eyes, because that works. That’s the modern intermediary for most blogs.

In an apparently more primitive way, I’d be trying to get relevant blogs to exchange blogroll links. Not just because this so-called “link love” provides interesting lists of resources underlined by the authority of a prescriber (the blog author), but because it raises a blog’s visibility in the largest prescriber of them all: Google. The more links a blog receives, the larger it looms in Google searches in the related fields. That is also the unspoken role of web-based RSS readers: they are indexed, and they breed links and relevance, and thus higher Google rankings.

The long and the short of it is that the web, and the Web 2.0, have brought changes in the names and techniques of intermediaries and prescribers, but they’re still out there. The role of prominent editors is diminished (even that of authors) in what looks like a buyer’s market: in most fields there are so many sources, so little original content, and such a dependence on visits to get financial returns.

Intermediaries and prescribers are increasingly harnessing two types of “social grading” to select what to present: direct (as in Digg) through expressed appreciation, and indirect (as in Google or Technorati) through evidence of relevance. This does not mean that they (we) have relinquished the effort of giving our own opinion, editing and selecting: it means that the relative value of prescription is falling.

And the more the web becomes participative, the more authors lose control on links in their pages, and thus the larger the weight of readers (“buyers”) in this arena. A blog reader can follow links on content, stumble upon the blogroll… or find links in the blog comments, or simply navigate the web through a feed aggregator or a Digg-like community.

Disintermediation? Not a chance. It’s harsher, and it looks like extending to every mainstream area of the web. A few sources will escape it, most will not. It’s already happened in industry and in most services, and it’s coming online.

It’s content commoditization.



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