Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 11 December 2002
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Quint's Online
Bye! (Sigh ...) The End of an Era
Is this really the last Barbara Quint column in Information Today?
by Barbara Quint

A 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 run—but a fun one—at 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 services—a 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 offered—full-text collections of popular magazines and trade press—had 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 searcher—at 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 information—i.e., the Web—as both essential and difficult, the demand for quality-filtered, critically examined services should rise.

This doesn't necessarily mean that formally published information sources—as delivered by traditional information vendors and the libraries that have stored their offerings—will 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 field—an 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 long haul.

 

Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Searcher, contributing editor for NewsBreaks, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.

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