November 25, 2009

Why Search Engines Are Not Publishers

By Stephen Laliberte

I finally purchased an iPhone. Over the years I have transitioned from an early adopter to somewhat of a late adopter. I purchased one of the first PDA/cell phones in about 2000. You had to place it in a cradle on your PC, run a program and it would sync your contacts, appointments, email, and anything else you tried to sync to it. IProduction even did a few products with Post-NewsWeek Tech Media to download high tech articles onto your PDA. We received a sum of five figures from a mobile provider. Those were the days.

The problem was the phone was unreliable. You could not hear it and when you turned it up, the entire world could hear you. The syncing was laborious and sometimes took more time to sync than it did to use the information. I stuck it out for about 6 months and then I went back to using a reliable telephone.

I love the idea of a phone that is also a decent network aware computer. So I have watched and waited. I recently realized that I am about the only one in meetings who does not have their head down with a phone in their lap reading email. I also began to notice that the fastest way to get in touch with my key customers was to email them. This was sometimes better than the phone. Why? They were always in meetings and were answering me 'under the table'. So I have been watching the evolution of the iPhone and the Blackberry. I like the Blackberry keypad, but I need the larger display size on the iPhone. (If you can read this, you will not get my point.)

What I really wanted was the ability to read my email, but what pushed me over the top was the GPS mapping on the iPhone. So, as a birthday present to myself, I purchased an iPhone. It took about three minutes to figure out how it worked, however, configuring the exchange server took nearly an hour. The problem was that each time I tried, the account required resetting and I had to start over again. The good news was that by the time I had entered my name, email address, exchange server address, exchange name, and password 20 times, I became pretty good with the keyboard on the iPhone.

Once I was able to get the phone connected, it was great. Presto, all my contacts, all my calendar appointments, and all my email appeared. The iPhone connects with the server more frequently than my PC, so my phone is more current than my desktop! So far I am impressed. The phone even works. Everywhere I go, it prompts me to connect to the wide area network. So when I'm home, I connect to the Liberty network and when I'm at work, I'm connected to IProduction.

If a skeptical early adopter, such as me, embraces mobile and it works, maybe it is time to get serious about publishing to mobile. AT&T is not going to give anyone $50,000 to seed their content on a mobile device, so it will have to be accomplished the old fashion way, with good content targeted to mobile readers. I begin using my iPhone with the awareness of how I might develop a product for it.

Recently, on a ride to the airport, I had some time to play with my iPhone. I hit the mapping application, told it to use my location and watched it as it showed me exactly where I was on the road. I noticed that it updated about every 30 seconds and it knew exactly when we went up the exit ramp. I was impressed.

Later, I was asked to deliver some mail for my daughter-in-law who is Australian and is studying to be a doctor. She is working through some online courses and had a number of tests to be sent back to Australia. One package had a time limit so she had it prepackaged in a DHL shipping envelope with the address on it and the postage paid. All I had to do was drop it off at DHL.

Two years ago when I attended the CES show many of the mobile devices were licensing GPS tagged data. (Folio Roundtable: Magazine Publishing in a Digital Device World) I remember laughing because all the promotions said 'Deliver Your Content on Mobile'. I wondered what they meant by content and most of them meant data or video. So I wondered if I would have any luck. I picked the Safari app and it defaulted to Yahoo.

iPug  November 2009 - Mobile MapI typed in 'DHL' and it prompted me to use my location. To my surprise it came up with four locations near the airport. I picked the closest one and set out. The address was straightforward but there was no office building. I searched around making U turns and creeping along until I had canvassed the area twice. No address, no building, and NO DHL.

I pulled over, did my search again and there it was again along with the other addresses. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. I dialed 411 and asked about DHL. I asked them for the nearest drop off. It was six miles away. Sometime, in the last few years, they shut down most of their retail drop-off boxes. No one told Yahoo. Yahoo did not care. The people who created this probably never figured that the 'Content' they licensed would change and that they had an editorial responsibility to publish accurate information.

This separates publishers from the technology oriented search providers. They do not care as much about the quality of their editorial. It is not their responsibility. They leave it to the reader or the blogger or the social networker. I will never trust Yahoo's mobile information. Why should I? There is no economic incentive for them to invest in editorial. As long as advertisers are willing to put ads on an information service that is not accurate, they will not feel the pain. However, the service will fail. It will not be used. The business analysts will review the usage data and see that no one is using the application. They will not see the reason why people are not using the application.

So, when you (as a publisher) contemplate a mobile service, do not make the same mistake. Start your process around editorial integrity. Ask yourself the question, "What editorial value proposition am I making to my mobile reader?" Do not make the common mistake of asking "What content can I re-purpose to mobile?"

If you cannot think of a mobile service that is valuable to a base of qualified readers, stay out of mobile. You will save yourself a lot of $$ on yet another high tech boondoggle.