The Human Side of Search: Directories, Wikis and Networks

One of the most popular portal sites today started with a list of Jerry Yang’s favourite sites.  As Jerry grew his directory of sites into the megaportal of Yahoo – he also gave birth to an idea that was copied across the Internet.  Then Google came along and Yahoo’s directory suddenly became a tool for amateur web surfers … with more sophisticated "netizens" turning to Google’s powerful search engine to find content online.  Now the directory model is back – complemented by the rise of content networks and wikis that are helping users to sift through content in ways that don’t require them to use algorithmic search. 

Today some users are as likely to use Wikipedia to get a list of links about a particular topic as they are to rely on search tools.  Blog networks and blog rolls are allowing users to browse new websites in an extension of Amazon’s old "you might also like this book" feature, giving rise to a new type of search based on the "recommendation engine."  In short, the power of directories, wikis and networks is being amplified by the human element.  Here are a few reasons this will be a trend to watch:

  1. People trust their peers – This is not only about trusting your friends and family, which is one of those obvious trueisms of marketing that seems to recently have been rediscovered. (link)  Trust in your peers can also be a virtual effect, based on a relationship with someone’s content through their blog or based on content they create online.  Directories are edited by people.  Blog rolls are personal recommendations of other blogs to check out.  Each of these tools is based on the peer trust phenomenon – and therefore a powerful tool in search.
  2. The crowd can’t be wrong – Of course, this is an exaggeration, but taking the concept of the wisdom of the crowds further, the power behind Wikipedia and other wikis is the concept that a group of individuals will come up with content that is better, more thorough and more useful than any one individual.  A good example is the PRWiki, which is an invaluable tool for those in the industry to access a wealth of information on PR.  Wikis like this offer highly useful lists of links and searchable content within the context of content listed on the Wiki.  Over time, the content on the Wiki can become so comprehensive, there is little need to travel outside of it to find what you are looking for.
  3. Networks add credibility – Associations have been around for many years, and aside from representing the interests of members, they offer a network of credibility.  If I belong to the Appraisal Institute (a client of OPR), the perception in the real estate market is that I am a more skilled appraiser.  Blog networks are starting to lend similar credibility.  Two of the largest, Federated Media and 9Rules offer slightly different philosophies but similar levels of credibility to members.  FM is about helping top tier bloggers commercialize and make money from their efforts.  9Rules is about promoting the passion behind blogging and connecting bloggers in various categories to one another.  Weblogs Inc, Gawker, Blogburst, and many others are other examples of these networks online.   
  4. Content filters augment the open web – The web is open by nature, and attempts to control content or block it online usually fail (example of india with blogs).  But with the plague of spam, splogs and spyware – people need content filters.  They need smarter ways to block out crap and get to the best content.  Directories offer a way of doing that by only listing sites that are determined to meet certain criteria.  While the process for approving sites into a directory may still be automated, the act of creating a subset of web content and allowing users to browse and drill down into sections and subsections offers a useful method for search.

Note: This post is the second in a series of explorations of the human side of search that relate to my upcoming presentation at the Search Insider Summit this week in Keystone, Colorado.

UPDATE: Listen to an MP3 of the presentation or download it.

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