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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Very Early Plug for User-Generated Content Panel at San Jose

I'll be speaking on a new topic at SES San Jose on Aug. 23 - on user-generated content. The reality is, companies that have tens or hundreds of thousands of pages of *useful* content have a huge leg up in terms of natural search referrals. But how to get that, and have it be vibrant, usable, and interesting, without it being duplicate content purchased/syndicated from somewhere else?

Of course that's what has made "UGC" so interesting as a business model. But what are the prominent UGC sites? Well, of course, it runs the gamut from forums, to photo sharing sites, to volunteer edited directories. When you think about it, the most familiar brand names online are often UGC-based. Some huge success stories include:
  • The Open Directory Project (dmoz) [human edited directory]
  • YouTube [without users video it's nowhere]
  • Flickr [without users uploading photos it's nowhere]
  • Yelp [reviews of local biz, especially lifestyle hotspots, restaurants, spas, etc.]
  • Craigslist [to the commercial/transactional side, but also stretches out to all kinds of classifieds including dating, jobs, etc. - the fact is, people have to write titles and descriptions for what they're selling... so... do this en masse and guess what, you get tons of search traffic]
  • Kijiji [eBay's recognition of Craigslist's power -- same basic biz model]
  • Wikipedia [of course]
  • TripAdvisor [user reviews of travel spots, accommodations, you name it]
  • Topix [adding community discussion of news items to its basic news search functionality]
  • PlentyofFish [dating, with no subscription fee - not only do they have reams of personals with descriptions, they have very active forums]
  • Usenet [ :) ]
And yes, any type of community would seem to count - Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc. - some are more accessible to search engines than others. There is obviously a user-to-user and viral component to growth that does *not* rely on search engine stumble-ins, too, but if you look at how some "classic UGC plays" like TripAdvisor grew, it was hugely dependent on long tail stumble-in search engine traffic.

Obviously the list could go on. Personally, I cut my teeth on some of the tech investing discussion forums dating back as far as 1996 (remember the differences between Motley Fool, Silicon Investor, and Raging Bull? Fool was more folksy and advicey at first whereas the latter two were more free-flowing... second and third movers in a space can grow quickly with very little investment if the community is active).

The job of search engines is often to find deep, relevant content on highly specific topics. UGC sites are often perfect fits for what searchers are looking for. Yet in the world of "SEO," talk is often a narrow, pinched description of "SEO-ifying" a corporate or small business website; or alternatively, of optimizing writer-generated and editorial-generated content for search engines. But the above are obviously the most wildly successful businesses you can imagine, when it comes to the potential for rapid growth through organic search referrals down the long tail. They have their own challenges and success trajectories, and as my friend Mike Grehan would say, it has nothing to do with an H1 tag.

I look forward to continuing this discussion.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




Thursday, May 17, 2007

Missing From the UGC Viability Discourse, Part 1

In this wave of the Internet economy, investors are self-consciously considering investing in plays that depend on "user-generated content." In the past, Internet investments were more haphazard. Today's discourse is much more sophisticated.

So naturally, in discussions of the viability of burgeoning online communities, a big question is: why would anyone contribute? Why would you upload a video? Why would you write a product review?

Certainly the puzzle of how to induce someone to "give up" valuable information and to share and contribute their ideas is an interesting one. In spite of the apparent growth of the so-called "pro-am" movement, the impulse to contribute isn't universal, so maybe it's unnatural? Unlikely? Unrealistic to expect it from people? I guess that depends on how you look at it.

If you're too much of a sceptic on this question, of course, you assume no bonds of reciprocity; no impulse towards gossip; no sense of duty; you in fact assume that we do not live in a society.

Now if you're the victim of a survey research call at dinner, you might answer as the Alberta farmer did when I was making those putrid calls many years ago: "I've worked hard for what I got, and I'd like to keep it that way." Answering a few questions about attitudes towards the environment, and who he'd be voting for in the next election, would be tantamount to theft, in his mind.

But what if you're part of a viable community, rather than just being interrupted at dinner?

What if John Rawls, the last century's most pre-eminent American philosopher, was right? That we have a "sense of justice" necessary to be "fully cooperating members of society"? To figure out why any society would share values and information to the extent that they agree on how power and communications roughly work (eg. shared signals, common laws, etc.), philosophers like Rawls made certain assumptions. In some way these were based on modern empirical reality, given the structures of laws in most modern societies.

Rawls also defined the sense of justice -- as "the capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public conception of justice which characterizes the fair terms of cooperation." The fact that Elliot Spitzer brought major business leaders to account speaks a lot to the sense of justice that an Attorney-General must have if we're to live in a just society, but the broader point is that his work was by and large endorsed by society.

Many online peering and sharing activities don't require a sense of justice, but some do. There is something else at work in the reciprocal uploading of music and other content -- it doesn't require a "sense of justice," precisely -- but it's probably part of the same family. It is, at least, a sense of reciprocity or mutuality.

On RateMyProfessors or HotOrNot or something else entirely, the activity's a bit more frivolous that a "sense of justice" would require, but again, it's in the same family.

People writing book reviews on Amazon is part of a more mature - if often unfair - process of contributing to that general social discourse. This is starting to get more like what I'm talking about.

There are a great many communities that have yet to be built online, that look a little like some of the things we've seen so far, but simply aren't yet as mature. Consumer Reports is published out of something like a sense of justice and is consumed mostly passively. These kinds of impulses will soon take a more contemporary, distributed form online, a more mature form than a click on a "Hot or Not" button.

Recent news items about Optionable, Inc., a trading firm somehow mixed up in a natural gas trading scheme with a much larger partner, BMO Financial, indicate that a habitual financial "whistleblower" began noticing unusual trading patterns in the futures markets. As she had done on numerous occasions in the past, the woman, a 51-year-old president of an investment club, began sending notes to regulatory authorities alerting them to the problems. One response might be to ask what's special about this woman to cause her to have such an elevated sense of justice; moral outrage, even. Then again, if she plays in the same markets, she also has a vested interest in a level, transparent playing field. I'd like to think there's a little of that in all of us. Whatever, you can't argue with the fallout when information inevitably gets out. Optionable's stock has fallen from $9 to 50 cents, and the company is now embroiled in scandal.

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Posted by Andrew Goodman




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