As we move into the new year, the “Web 3.0″ references appear to be picking up speed, and most define Web 3.0 closely along the lines of the social graph, with Facebook and Twitter as the poster children. Its not so much social media though, that is powering a fundamental shift on the web, but rather a change in how content is created, organized, indexed, and consumed.
Perhaps the biggest shift is embodied in how we all think about content. If you think back just a few years, the content landscape was dominated by a notion of “containers”. Regardless of content type, the container drove most of the organization, commerce, and consumption of content. Music is the easiest illustration. While record companies had oriented themselves around “albums” and “catalogs”, they missed the consumer shift toward a focus on the individual tracks. The arrival of the iPod was the gasoline on the fire, providing a simple-to-use device and software for purchasing and consuming content at the “object” level (a digital track) rather than the container level (an album). This has had profound effects on the industry. An album was the ultimate bundling strategy. You may have wanted that favorite song, but to get it you had to pay for the other fifteen tracks on the album.
The publishing industry is undergoing a similar change. Magazines and newspapers have for decades been defined by monthly or weekly issues or daily editions. These containers were vital to the business model, as to read the articles or see the photos etc, you had to page through numerous ads. By defining the scope of the business by circulation, publishers were able to dimension the advertising opportunity at the aggregate audience level. This too is undergoing dramatic changes, as publications like the Christian Science Monitor ceasing to publish a paper edition, essentially abandoning the container driven model.
The most recent shift towards objects rather than containers is the television industry. The explosive growth of Hulu as an online broadcast TV destination has perhaps permanently changed the television industry. Traditionally the television network represented the “container”, and the scarcity of “containers” (i.e. the big three networks) originally created extraordinary economics for those companies. With the arrival of cable networks, thousands of new containers were created. The Web has now succeeded in changing the game to the extent that fewer and fewer of us think in terms of television containers, and more think about the objects themselves. Indeed, taken to its natural conclusion, even the episode itself as a content object is undergoing change, as online technologies allow users to create a clip of whatever they find and share and embed it as they desire.
Content objects: Google at risk?
The social graph is often referred to as Web 3.0 because it is such a strong example of the coming value of the semantic web. Web 2.0 has enabled people to assemble, comment upon, rate, and share content objects in a way never before possible. Digg was an early example, essentially sweeping aside the importance of a publication (the container) and bringing articles (the objects) front and center to stand on their own merits. As major publishers such as the New York Times, USAToday, and the Wall Street Journal have deployed these approaches, it’s hard to imagine publishing on the web without these features.
In many regards Google is at risk from the shift from containers to objects. Google’s genius was in inventing a new way to identify the relative value of the billions of web page (containers) spread across the Internet. The links between containers have provided the answer to the frustrating challenge of search relevancy. Unfortunately, as content objects and web pages don’t have a 1:1 relationship (think about a video and an article being on the same web page, or a list of individual products for sale), web pages as containers only reveal a portion of a content objects detail (tags as a rudimentary approach). A web page tells little to nothing about that object’s larger value across the web, something the social graph is effective at doing.
This leads to the classic chicken and egg problem. If web search is optimized for discovering and organizing web pages (containers) rather than individual videos (objects) as an example, then that object risks being left out of the broader social graph if it can’t be easily found. To date Google has done relatively little to re-orient their search products around objects. The Google search interface is still geared primarily to containers, although integration of YouTube videos and images suggest this will change in the near future. Strangely, Google Base had great promise in this regard but seems to have been sidelined at this point. The risk to Google is that user behavior fundamentally shifts toward the social graph as the primary means of content discovery rather than search, putting their lucrative business model at risk.
New challenges for publishers
This fundamental shift creates new burdens and opportunities for publishers, who have to rethink how their content objects will be discovered, shared and organized in a Web 3.0 world. The biggest requirement is the comprehensive creation and organization of an objects meta-data, as the real currency in Web 3.0. This doesn’t just mean a handful of tags, but rather a rich markup featuring tags, entities, geographic coordinates, and transcripts. This enhanced meta-data drives discovery in a Web 3.0 world, which in turn sparks that object’s presence in the social graph, where user data can be further used to fill out an object’s markup, such as popularity, ratings, consumption metrics, and audience profile. This hasn’t been and won’t be an easy transition. The products and technologies to leverage this object level data into new revenue streams are only just appearing, while consumers “rejection” of the container driven business model is in full swing.
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