little more than 10 years ago, in the September 1992 issue of Information
Today, Quint's Online began publication. Here we are in the
December 2002 issue, and it's time to announce that this will be
the final column. It's been a long runbut a fun oneat
least for me.
A Little History
In the first column, titled "Hi!" I set the goal of letting
the online information industry know what professional searchers
thought of their products and servicesa task that the looming
arrival of end-user searchers made all the more essential. That
first column paraphrased a real conversation I had with a major
database aggregator's senior product manager. He had contended
that the database products his company offeredfull-text
collections of popular magazines and trade presshad topped
off the market and that their usage would not grow. I, the user,
argued that the vendor hadn't even started to tap its market.
When it came to completing its course, the online information
industry had not only not graduated, it hadn't even finished kindergarten.
In 1992, we couldn't see the Web on the horizon, but we could
certainly hear the tapping fingers of Internet users on keyboards
around the world rising from a clatter to a roar. We professional
searchers knew that someday, some way, all the world would come
to realize the wondrous joy of online searching. What most of
us did not foresee is how far out of the loop both we and traditional
online vendors would be when that happy day came to pass.
How Did It All Turn Out?
Clearly, intermediated searching has passed its prime. No longer
does a search require a searcherat least not a professional
one. On the other hand, the appetite for answers, not research,
continues to grow. Witness the rise of digital reference as exemplified
in the library-based 24/7 services that are under development
around the land. Even mighty Google has launched Google Answers,
its own "Ask-A" service. However, I would bet that the use of
quality-filtered services, such as those with human interveners
in place, will rise. As end users start interacting with the Web,
they will experience euphoria from the delusion that all their
information needs have been solved for now and evermore.
However, with the dawn, sad sobriety can wake these users from
their fantasy world and leave them unsure and wary about the "iffiness"
of too many answers to too many questions. I predict that one
lesson will remain learned: End users will continue to believe
that failure to search the Web effectively leaves them in danger
of being blindsided by ignorance. So if they perceive online informationi.e.,
the Webas both essential and difficult, the demand for quality-filtered,
critically examined services should rise.
This doesn't necessarily mean that formally published information
sourcesas delivered by traditional information vendors and
the libraries that have stored their offeringswill rise
again. At least not if the products aren't changed significantly. And
these modifications need to go a lot deeper than just tossing
a spider web over legacy data. The process itself needs changing.
For example, look at expensive (by Web standards) full-text
business data. Major online vendors continue to mix material that
amounts to little more than retyped press releases with material
for which reporters have done serious investigation and critiquing.
In pay-per-view pricing for access to these collections, searchers
are expected to pay the same for a free press release (which probably
has more details and background information) from a corporate
Web site as they would for the story the reporter worked hard
to uncover. Subscription-based pricing does not improve the matter
much. It still means the searcher has to spend his or her time
plucking the wheat from the chaff.
What Vendors Should Do
People want the truth. They may even be willing to pay extra
for it. So come up with a business-news service that extracts
good reporting, arrays alternative value-added reports from multiple
sources, posts impact studies through statistical counts of press
coverage, and even identifies stories in which the press releases
are sufficient and also links to the sites where the most complete
announcements appear. That would be the start of a good business
plan for future service. But just a start.
Publishers themselves now compete with online vendors. The Web's
famed ability to "disintermediate" has eliminated the need for
third-party online vending. However, the battle for eyeballs and
mindshare continues. Publishers have already examined the operations
of their online partners in the course of designing their own
direct offerings. How about if online vendors return the favor?
Start looking behind the publishers' operations and see how they
put together their wonderful offerings. I'll bet you'll find that
many of them do it using freelance sources. (If they didn't, then
why did they go to the expense of fighting the Tasini case
all the way to the Supreme Court?)
Online vendors can make contracts with authors too. You might
enter into direct deals with writers to update or expand stories
that are covered in publications. This could give your products
added value and distinguish you in the full-text business fieldan
area that has become more and more "commoditized."You might even
turn a pool of authors into consultants who are available for
private research. In today's tight job market, such an arrangement
could be advantageous for both parties.
Whatever you do, however, you'll need feedback from users to
guide you toward the products and services that really work. In
the course of writing this column over the last decade, I have
often mumbled grouchily, "No one ever listens to me." Harumph.
But nothing has disappointed me so much as the online industry's
failure to add feedback mechanisms to their product offerings
and apply them vigorously. Wimpy "round up the usual suspects"
focus groups and the chatting up of a half-dozen key clients just
don't cut it.
Remember some years back when a very large full-text service
relied on such mechanisms to restructure its entire vast collection?
Then the service had to re-restructure when users who were left
out of the loop exploded in rage at the effect on their bills?
The bottom line is that testing products aimed at new markets
requires reaching beyond the people who are using today's products.
Of course, today's clients may sometimes seem very informative
and knowledgeable about which new services they want. But think
about it. This probably means that someone else has already shown
them products better than yours. You're still playing catch-up,
not get-ahead, ball.
Way back in that first column, I stated: "Once you're in the
water, the choice is no longer between swimming and staying dry.
The choice is between swimming and drowning." (For more of my
quotable quotes, see that wonderful book, The Quintessential
Searcher: The Wit and Wisdom of Barbara Quint, published by
Information Today, Inc. Oh, yes. Did I forget to mention that
new articles produced by authors under contract to online vendors
might appropriately include advertising? Another source of revenue
is heard from!) Well, we're all in the water together now: consumers
and information professionals who are inside the industry. Let's
hope someone here has a surfboard or better yet, a catamaran.
Is This Goodbye?
So that's "30" as they say in the publishing business. It's
the end of the run for Quint's Online. I hope you all have enjoyed
the ride as much as I have.
But fear not! In the January 2003 issue of Information Today,
look for a brand-new column called Up Front with Barbara Quint.
;-> ;-> (My emoticon dictionary defines those as "devilish
winks." I couldn't find one for "evil chuckling.") Terser, tauter, but
just as tart, the new column will cover all the new challenging
issues. Now, really! You didn't honestly think I'd leave you guys
alone in the lurch without me? We're in this together for the
Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Searcher, contributing
editor for NewsBreaks, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail
address is email@example.com.