|Is there anyone else out there besides me who loves those two classic
comics, Laurel and Hardy? I knew it! Sons of the desert, unite! We have
nothing to lose but our gloom.
Speaking of the desert, I recall one sequence where the boys were in
the French Foreign Legion marching along in lock step at the end of a long
line of soldiers, clad in those droopy tailcoats with crossed white bandoliers
and clutching long, heavy rifles in their hands. Marching, marching, marching
through the hot desert. Marching, marching, marching, one foot after another.
Marching, marching, marching ... Then Oliver looks up and--lo and behold--he
and Stanley are all alone and have been, apparently, for some time, since
nowhere across the flat desert expanse can they see any sign of the other
Legionnaires. Of course, we in the giggling audience knew they were alone
ever since we saw the column take the fork to the right while the boys
just kept their eyes on their feet and marched straight ahead into oblivion.
The error began when they kept following a course that others no longer
followed. Somehow that image keeps recurring when I look at traditional
information establishments trying to survive in a Web world. But perhaps
the answer lies in using more paths--either blazing new ones or trying
out well-mapped trails they have never trod before.
How about commercialization? Why shouldn't traditional online services
carry advertising? Whoa. Whoa. I can hear the protests from my colleagues.
"The money I pay for a commercial online search and you expect me to have
to read some stupid ads?" Well, in the olden days, that protest may have
had some merit, but nowadays every professional searcher sees ads on their
search results all the time, mainly because we all use Web sources that
depend on ad revenue to support free or low-cost service. When database
aggregators license their data to Net newbies, as Gale Group has with a
chunk of its holdings on LookSmart's FindArticles.com service, the content
appears with advertisements. LookSmart depends on advertising revenue.
But the content also appears for free.
Sometimes the presence of data on a site in itself constitutes an advertising
milieu. For example, Factiva licenses data produced by its parents, Dow
Jones and Reuters, to outside Web sites, sometimes down to the individual
article level. LEXIS-NEXIS' Veracity (formerly Tell Me More) service offers
to set up flows of data for fixed monthly fees, tapping into thousands
of its full-text titles. What happens when this outside data arrives at
a commercial site? It usually serves to reproduce all the friendly descriptions
from favorable product reviews or complimentary financial analyses of the
company, or to describe all the wonders of a new industry and the dot-com
owner's place in that industry. As far as users are concerned, any form
of promotion is a form of commercial advertising.
Of course, most traditional services promote themselves automatically
by putting their names on the search screens and the printed or downloaded
results. In the past, even purist intermediary searchers have included
such identification in search results transmitted to clients, if only because
it indicated the source of the data--a bibliographic must. But most of
the purists died out in the Second Millennium. And one wonders why commercial
online services keep their ads so subtle these days. Most of them have
end-user online systems to sell, but they don't seem to use the presentation
of search results (delivered by professional searchers) to promote their
end-user services. Factiva, for example, might want to carry ads for its
Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition (WSJIE) on search results produced
over Dow Jones Interactive. Of course, I can never keep all the bureaucratic
layers straight in these complex joint ventures. But even if WSJIE, like
dowjones.com, doesn't belong in the Factiva family of services, so what?
In fact, even better. It's a great way to get more money from one of your
parents by selling them ad space.
Everybody's chasing the Internet advertising dollar. Articles in the
business press bemoan its decline, but if you look a little closer, you
will see that the "decline" just reflects the fact that 2000 was the first
year in several that the annual increase in Internet advertising dropped
below 100 percent. Poor baby! Advertisers are in a quandary. Studies show
that homes with Internet access record diminished TV usage. If the most
popular of mass media can't hold eyeballs against the Internet, then advertisers
must chase those eyeballs onto the Net. And the Net, of course, offers
some advantages to advertisers in its ability to target user interests
The angle that traditional online services might take in reaching for
Net advertising dollars would probably be that all their users/readers
already have their wallets out. If people are willing to pay for information,
they're probably willing to pay for something else as well.
One concern does arise. Would the publishers that feed their content
to full-text aggregators resent those partners becoming new competitors
for advertising dollars? Perhaps some partnerships could be worked out.
Right now, the process of feeding content to full-text aggregators automatically
strips out all the advertising the publisher might carry in their own presentations
of the content. Sad to say, the process usually also strips out supplementary
graphics, like tables and charts andpictures, and sometimes, even sidebars
of text. But if one could offer to include all that material, users would
probably be happyto endure advertisements that went along with it. So aggregators
could promise publishers that their advertisers would get wider distribution.
In return, the publishers might not mind when aggregators added some of
their own advertising.
But the database aggregators should probably make sure that they get
that option in writing fairly quickly. Otherwise they may find themselves
having given away a bargaining chip for nothing. In case no one noticed
the move toward offering full-image articles, as well as full text, it
also produces online results that include advertising content. Last month,
Bell & Howell Information and Learning (BHIL) announced that it would
be digitizing the full century and a half backfiles of The New York
Times and The Wall Street Journal. Users will beable to designate
articles and receive clips that include "jumps" from one page to another.
They can also designate full pages, where they can zoom around to look
at charts and ads and whatever appears. BHIL will index pages at a whole
new level of specificity--stock quotes, weather, advertisements. Advertisements!
The problem with advertisements shown as historical artifacts is that
you can't get any more money from advertisers for presenting them. But
what if BHIL followed up on the advertisers' names and offered to attach
current ads to presentations of results? Not for every ad, of course. Sales
on clothing would seem to date quickly, but maybe not. What about some
creative advertising? "See what your mother wore when she shopped at Bloomies.
Come on down and let us dress you, too." To carry off any kind of targeted
advertising, however, BHIL needs to start inventorying ad content and matching
it with current advertisers now at the start of the digitizing process.
In fact, full-text aggregators and search services might develop a service
to update ads within online content and market it with the publishers.
No, No, No
Just a few warnings before you start. Try not to get weird with ads.
Even the mighty can get kind of loopy when it comes to the new arena of
Internet advertising. Each day at dawn I arise to my daily perusal of The
New York Times--the home page, of course. Only a screwball would buy
The Times in print when the online version is so vastly superior
in every way--a fact I keep trying to explain to the telemarketers who
call annually to try to sell me a print subscription. Over the last couple
of months, however, The Times has found a new way to increase its
advertising revenue. It now splits articles into multiple screens, forcing
you to click through them to read the whole article and, with every screen,
a new set ofads. Cognoscenti learn quickly to click on the tiny letters
reading "Single-Page Format," but even that means adding another click
just to read one article. It's a little annoying, but the "price" still
makes it an unbeatable deal.
The weirdness comes from where The Times places its new online
advertisements. They all seem to fall over on the right side of the screen
in parallel with the articles. Sort of a Modigliani approach to ad placement--long
and narrow. However, since my browser setup works inside a window without
maximizing to take up the whole screen space, I barely notice the ads.
Only general text shifts or changing color schemes ever catch my eye. Hardly
enough to get me to maximize the screen just to read an ad. If it's not
on the top or the bottom, I'm afraid a lot of advertisements just float
Speaking of floating away, here's another hint. Hold your ads throughout
the session. This may come as a big shock, but lots of people don't actually
go online to read theads. They come to read the articles. So if we notice
an ad while we're reading an article, we may go onto another article before
we decide to take a closer look at the ad. First we do what we came to
do--read articles--and then we do something else--review interesting ads.
But, lo and behold, when we back up to the previous article, the ad has
changed. Well, easy come, easy go. It probably wasn'tinteresting anyway.
Note to self: Don't bother chasing ads on this service. Ahem!
Speaking of ahems, one very serious matter: Never, never let the advertisements
interfere with your content. However you lay the ads out, they must always
look different and stand out from the editorial content. This holds true
regardless of whether you're charging for it or not, though, one must admit,
there seems to be little one can do to influence a freebie service. LookSmart,for
example, offers an evaluated Web site directory service that was, before
it decimated its staff, apparently a good one. But the site has started
including advertisement-supported citations as the first items reported
on its pages. And the advertiser contributions look just like the "real"
answers. It's one thing for Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com to promise
in a little box to the side with their logo on it that they have a book
to answer each and every query. (Here's a bit of fun you can try: Put in
the name of a favorite relative or your dog and download the image that
claims books were written about them.) What is not acceptable is merging
the ads with the content so that the user has to dig to tell one from another.
Frankly, I have never understood this kind of deceptive strategy. But
then I have never understood spam either. If someone's really interested
in buying a product, they'll want to buy it from someone who looks competent
and solid. Trying to trick people into looking at a product they don't
want to see just makes the seller look desperate and untrustworthy. The
downside of the Internet's ability to target advertising is that failure
to target properly may prove counterproductive.
As for the protests one has heard in the past from professional searchers,
well, I bet they'll no longer ring so loud now that everyone is using ad-supported
Web sources. In any case, the ability to mine end-user pockets would seem
to be an opportunity traditional online services can no longer afford to
Information professionals themselves may face advertising channels.
The other day I was invited to participate in a computer conference by
a pal from a major library services vendor. For 2 days, at hourly intervals,
experts came on board with sets of digital slides and remarks covering
an innovative new area of online library service. In a futile attempt to
avoid one more call away from my duty to get out another issue of Searcher,
I told my compadre that I couldn't prepare enough material to last an hour.
But he assured me that I only needed 15 minutes worth--which I assumed
meant 30 minutes (he's such a finagler). The rest was Q&A. Not quite
all the rest. Turns out that every 2 hours, he took 15 minutes to present
his company's product offering.
Some 200250 people signed in over the 2-day period; about 45 were
at my session.And what started them off? An online infomercial! Sheesh.
Well, it only cost themsome time. They could always zone out for the commercial
portion. They still got a lot of high-level information without paying
for airfare, hotels, taxis, or conference fees--and they didn't have
to don shoes or pantyhose.
It's a deal.
Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Searcher, co-editor
with Paula J. Hane for NewsBreaks, and a longtime online searcher.
Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.