In the past three years, we have witnessed emergent signals of a radical change in the nature of the Internet. Like the transition that preceded it, where its focus shifted from its original, technological orientation to a content-centric positioning, this next phase will bring a dramatic shift in fortunes for some of the major players.
While subtle, the change is profound. The label many use to describe it – the Come to me Web – best captures its essence. To appreciate the ramification of the changes in both technology and consumer behaviour we are witnessing, we need to revisit its precursor: the I Go Get It Web. Under this paradigm, content was at the centre of the universe, and most effort was directed to targeting and luring consumers to the content. The balance of power lay in the hands of the content owners; the leading business meme advocated aggressively capturing and monetising ‘eyeballs’.
In this environment, consumers were obliged to locate and seek out content and related services of interest. Not surprisingly, search engine technologies were highly valued, as were portal-style offerings that optimised the effort-reward equation by aggregating useful content in a single place.
The dominant mindset of content owners was to publish content for a single purpose – reading – and to treat computer screens as the digital evolution of printed books. The business objective, then, was creating and disseminating read-only information, and the challenge was making that information findable.
In the I Go Get It world, ‘findability’ became the overarching metaphor, and it borrowed much from the physical business of publishing, as evidenced by the emphasis placed on replicating print layouts and making content navigable through the use of publishing concepts. That most consumers accessed content via a single device undoubtedly influenced this state of affairs. It led to ‘format’ wars, as content owners sought to lock-in consumers by mandating the use of plug-ins and other proprietary formats.
The adaptation of a physical product mindset brought with it a range of artificial constraints around content access, use, and re-distribution and, similarly, how to enhance content products via the connectedness the Internet enabled. Only now, as our understanding of the true potential of digital services matures, and as emerging technologies decentralise power, are we seeing a dramatic change in both our metaphors and use of the Web.
The Come to Me Web neatly inverts the paradigm. Users, not content or technology, are at the centre of things. They are using tools and services that bring the content to them, ready to hand, on their preferred access device.
Decoupling content from its publishing containers has enabled consumers to use, aggregate, store, re-use, re-combine, and re-distribute content. This has fundamentally changed consumers’ perception of content: it has become “my” news headlines, “my” music, and “my” weather. This changing usage, and altered expectations, has forced the growing adoption of open standards and formats, as consumers seek to ensure maximum availability of ‘their’ content. Service owners are even starting to promote open APIs, so that others can create useful tools using their content, because this is what consumers are demanding.
The main hurdle for consumers has shifted from being able to find information to being able to re-find information they have already collected. This has spawned increasing activity in the area of ‘ambient discovery’; technologies designed to sniff out clues about what you will be interested in next (as distinct from now) and present you with it before you even ask.
These changes in consumer behaviour will have significant impact on the business of the Web. We can expect to see two things: increasing audience fragmentation and decreasing site traffic. Both will remain obscured initially due to an overall rise in online activity driven (ironically) by the increasing usefulness of new information platforms.
Increasing audience fragmentation will occur because consumers will become more responsive to site and content recommendations provided by peers and new technologies, displacing the primary role of search engines in this area (which tend to concentrate traffic on a handful of popular sites). Site traffic will decrease because consumers will be able to avoid visiting the original source of content, either because the content is coming directly to them (say, via RSS) or a peer is passing it on. Given the predominance of advertising-driven revenue models, Web measurement metrics will soon evolve to address the obvious difficulties this creates.
In the Come to Me Web environment, it will be incumbent upon service providers, and advertisers to go where your audience is, not where you would have them be.