Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Big Picture

Over the last year or so, I've rediscovered the fact that indexing and searching the Internet is part of a much bigger picture that includes a wide variety of activities that take place both online and offline. To wit, a discussion of how the Internet should be indexed presumes the existence of online content. In turn, the existence of online content presumes the existence of a means through which that content can be published and viewed. Moreover, the publication and viewing of online content is inextricably linked with other activities, such as commerce and education, activities that now blur the distinction between cyberspace and meatspace.

The big picture came into sharp focus for me during two presentations that I made recently at a continuing education seminar entitled Internet Research and General Usage for Legal Professionals in California. I did the opening presentation - "The Basics" -- and the closing presentation --"Marketing Your Practice on the Internet" -- and it occurred to me that my coverage of "The Basics" would have been more or less the same if my presentation had been made to a group that was not comprised entirely of legal professionals. It also occurred to me that "Marketing Your Practice on the Internet" was a streamlined version of the advice that I would give any business wishing to cultivate an online presence. But what invoked the most intrigue for me was the fact that in advising people at this seminar how to cultivate an online presence, I was forced to cover basic principles of marketing and business operations as preliminary considerations.

Giving credit where credit is due, what set my thoughts in motion last year was a conversation that I had with Dana Todd while attending Search Engine Strategies Toronto 2005. Dana Todd is the Executive Vice President of SiteLab, but when I met her she was staffing the booth for the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization. ( SEMPO.) I had some specific questions for Dana about why SEMPO seemed to be intentionally sidestepping ethical issues, and I pointed out that one of the primary functions served by most other professional trade organizations was to field ethical grievances. However, Dana very quickly redirected me to the big picture -- i.e., SEMPO's larger mission of trying to make search engine marketing part of the mainstream -- and I quickly found myself snapping to attention along with the various passers by who started listening in.

By virtue of that one brief conversation that I had with Dana, I began to revisit the big picture, and I found that there were already quite a few people in the know who were doing exactly the same thing. Even so, organic search engine optimization and pay per click marketing are still the biggest games in town, and when I try to point out to my clients and colleagues that these games only account for about one half of the income of online commercial enterprises, I am greeted with shaking heads and disbelief. It's sort of a Cassandra Complex, without the doom and gloom. In time, my clients will almost certainly come around. Meanwhile, my observations will either become recognized as truth by the mainstream, or they will remain hidden treasures that I can use to make a comfortable living.

So, if people are only using search engines to find things about half of the time, how else are they finding things online? Well, quite often, people are *NOT* finding things online. Rather, they are finding things offline, then visiting a particular URL to which they have been directed by offline content. Just as often, people who are online are looking for referrals from trusted online authorities other than a search engine like Google or Yahoo! Ironically enough, many of the same things that will help you become more prominent on search engines like Google and Yahoo! are the same things that will help you get referrals from other online authorities.