Here’s how search will evolve and become more powerful

Telescope-122960_1920You’re probably pretty happy with Google search today, right? It’s incredibly fast, extremely reliable and almost always delivers the desired results. What more could you ask for?

I think the problem with today’s search solutions is that we’ve limited them to what’s online. If the content has a web address and it’s been crawled by the major engines it’s properly analyzed and presented in search results.

But what about everything else? Once again, Evernote is a terrific example of what could be.

I’m a huge Evernote fan and I’ve configured it so that all my notes are exposed and retrievable in a Google search. Alongside the standard web, news, maps, images, etc., search results categories, Google also shows a frame with Evernote’s Web Clipper results. Simply put, a single Google search produces results from the web as well as my Evernote archive. Simple, yet powerful.

Why does it have to stop with the web and Evernote? Why can’t one search be configured to retrieve results from all my content streams?

Let’s start with the documents on my computer and in the cloud. They’re mostly Office applications, so a search needs to understand the structure of Word, Excel and Powerpoint documents. I’m not talking about simply searching file names; this search functionality needs to know whether the phrase is buried in the document itself.

Don’t forget about Outlook and all the other email applications. Search needs to sift through everything in my inbox, folders and attachments.

How about all the digital books, newspapers and magazines I read or scan every week? My search tool needs to capture, index and report back on all that activity as well. I sometimes rate articles and books I read, so the search algorithm needs to understand those rankings and include them in its algorithm, pushing higher-rated results towards the top.

Let’s also not forget about websites I’ve visited. This search tool should understand which sites I frequently visit and which pages I’ve spent more time on, reflecting the fact that I’m reading rather than scanning. This too is critical information for the search algorithm.

Next, it needs to understand my social graph and factor that into the search results. I’m much more active on Twitter than Facebook, for example, so what are the most recent relevant tweets that belong in my search results?

I realize this starts to clutter the results page. That’s why it all has to be configurable by the user. Clicking on/off checkboxes in a list should allow me to show or hide the various sources in search results. 

I’m able to search each of these sources individually today, of course, but there’s no uber-search tool allowing me to consolidate and search across all sources with one query.

Finally, and here’s where it gets even more interesting, I want the ability to curate and share my search results. Today you can do this by sharing the url from the results page; for example, here’s a Google search for my employer, Olive Software. That’s a start, but now I want to insert links to other sources, including all the ones noted above (e.g., documents, emails, ebooks, etc.).

Yes, there are countless sharing, opt-in, privacy and copyright issues to navigate before this vision becomes a reality. But imagine how powerful the results will be when these capabilities become standard features in every search engine.

Using technology to boost bookstores

Bookstore-945090_1280Technology and innovation probably aren’t the words that come to mind when you think about your local grocery store. Bar code scanners in the 1970’s were probably the last recent advancement in the grocery store industry. As you’ll see in this article, however, at least one grocery chain is leveraging a new form of technology to improve the shopping experience and I believe it offers guidance for a terrific lesson for bookstores.

The smart shelf technology described in that article describes how Kroger plans to provide more information for shoppers with LED displays that display accurate prices and other product information. It’s not exactly rocket science but it’s a much-needed first step towards an improved and more efficient in-person shopping environment.

Imagine your local bookstore with this functionality. OK, accurate prices on the shelf edges on shelves aren’t exciting but take it a few steps further. What if the store knows who you are and what you tend to read? Once again, we find ourselves in an area that freaks out the privacy advocates, but keep in mind this would be a 100% opt-in model for consumers.

As you go through the store the shelves communicate with an app on your phone to surprise and delight, taking the shopping experience to a whole new level. You’re greeted with information about new releases that interest you and special deals offered exclusively to you and available only during your current visit. You prefer ebooks over print books? No problem. The app already knows that and offers similar information and focuses on ebook deals which are only available while you’re in the store.

This sounds a lot like what e-retailers are able to do with email blasts and “buy x, get y” campaigns, right? The missing piece online is serendipity.

When was the last time you went to an online bookstore to simply browse? If you’re like most consumers, impulse buys are far more likely to happen in a brick-and-mortar store than on a website. Yes, there are exceptions, but serendipity is more of an in-store experience than an online one.

It’s time for technology to boost serendipity in the brick-and-mortar environment. That mobile app needs to tell me about the book I just walked past and why it’s perfect for me. And the message needs to have a button for quick, one-tap sample downloads to my mobile device. Make it a more enticing sample than what I can find anywhere else though (e.g., longer, richer, etc.) And don’t forget to dangle the special discount in front of me to make buying an irresistible step.

In short, give me a reason to go the brick-and-mortar store. I’ve only visited two bookstores in all of 2015. I used to go every week but there are fewer reasons to go now. Ironically, just as technology contributed to the struggles brick-and-mortar stores currently face, technology could also be part of the solution to make them more relevant again. If bookstores offered this sort of in-store experience I’m quite certain I’d go out of my way to discover the new products and deals that await me. 

How content containers can dramatically affect user experience

Library-488678_640I’m a big believer in the notion that content containers are slowly going away in the digital world. Those things we think of in the physical world as books, newspapers and magazines are being redefined digitally. It’s a slow evolution but one that is definitely taking place.

In the years ahead we’ll see more blurred lines here. One format will bleed into others and the edges around them will become less rigid. We’ll also encounter new ways of discovering and consuming content. For example, maybe you won’t have to actually buy an “ebook” to obtain full access to its contents.

The lenses through which we read content are going to change dramatically in the future as well. Wikiwand is a good example of this. It’s described as “Wikipedia Reimagined” and “a beautiful new interface to the world’s knowledge.” In short, it’s a Chrome plug-in that completely changes your Wikipedia experience.

Over the years the Wikipedia has started to look rather dated, almost as quaint as the old print encyclopedias it replaced. Compare a typical Wikipedia page to a more dynamic page from The Guardian or ESPN, for example, and you’ll see what I mean. Both The Guardian and ESPN are rendering the same type of content they presented 10 years ago but with a much more modern user experience. It sounds superficial but sometimes that’s all it takes to make content more engaging. 

Wikiwand is simply rearranging the objects on a Wikipedia page and presenting them in a more attractive and logical manner. I’ve always wondered why the table of contents for a complex Wikipedia page is buried below the introduction. Take a look at the World War II Wikipedia page, for example. You won’t see the outline for that page till you scroll down a bit and once you scroll further it’s no longer on the screen.

Now look at the same page in Wikiwand. The outline for the page is conveniently placed in a panel on the left. And notice that it always remains on the screen no matter how far you scroll down the main page.

Search is another area where Wikiwand offers a superior experience to the original Wikipedia. If you type in a search phrase in Wikipedia you’ll see a dynamic list of potential matches. It’s a user experience that’s been around for quite a few years now.

Type the same search phrase in Wikiwand and that dynamic list of potential matches comes to life. You can hover over any of them and a small pop-up window is displayed featuring a quick summary of that particular page. All of this happens without leaving the original page where your search began.

I’m just scratching the Wikiwand surface. Install the plug-in, try it out and you too will quickly discover this is a much better Wikipedia content experience.

As I’ve said before, we’re stuck in a “print under glass” era where publishers are taking the easy way out by offering quick-and-dirty digital editions that look just like the print format. We spend all our time consuming dumb content on smart devices.

I realize the cost of creating a true “born digital” approach for most content is too expensive and doesn’t offer an attractive ROI. At the same time, I believe innovative approaches like Wikiwand, where the same content is presented in a new and more engaging manner, can inspire new thinking and help publishers take baby steps beyond the print under glass stage where the industry is currently stuck.

Peer-to-peer content distribution

Human-668298_1280The smartwatch movement inspired me recently, which is surprising because I haven’t worn a watch since I started carrying a smartphone many years ago. I’m about as far as you can get from being a fashionista and I liken a watch to other obsolete single-use devices like the GPS. I doubt I’ll buy one anytime soon but I believe the device synchronization model used by smartwatches lends itself to content distribution as well.

You’re probably aware of how most smartwatches get paired with your smartphone. Although they don’t have all the capabilities of a smartphone, things like text messages and phone calls can be redirected from your phone to your watch, thanks in large part to Bluetooth technology. Your phone communicates with your watch the same way your phone connects with a wireless headset or desktop Bluetooth speaker, for example.

Let’s fast-forward to the day when we’ve all become peer-to-peer content distributors. Rather than relying on centrally-managed and hosted sites and services that handle everything from reviews to downloads, this peer-to-peer model means we’re doing all that for each other using Bluetooth or some other simple networking protocols. For example, your phone or computer can easily be turned into a wifi server, allowing you to connect multiple devices to it; that's a capability that exists today and I'm suggesting it could be extended for new uses in the future.

The Kindle introduced a whole new level of reading privacy. Once upon a time on a crowded bus you could see the cover of the book being read by the person across the aisle. Now we’re all masking our reading habits with tablets and phones. No, I’m not suggesting we embrace an overly intrusive model that has privacy advocates screaming in the streets. Rather, I believe a peer-to-peer model could be used to improve discovery and consumption at the hyperlocal level.

Think of the hundreds of riders on a commuter train each morning. Maybe they’re traveling from the northern suburbs into Manhattan. Some of them are neighbors. Many of them are businesspeople. All of them probably follow and read some type of news. Instead of just knowing the top global trends on Google, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what news stories your fellow commuters are reading?

The same concept can be applied to passengers on a plane or even homeowners in a neighborhood. Just as has disrupted Angie’s List and brought communication and recommendations to the local level, I suggest a peer-to-peer model could do the same for content.

The peer-to-peer aspect really shines when you consider how the content gets from my device to yours. That news story I just read on still lives in my browser’s cache. If enough of my fellow commuters read the same article, it floats to the top of the popular news list for our little commuter community. You click the link to it in our peer-to-peer content app and the article is pulled from my cache to your device.

In short, we’re distributing content to each other, without having to go up and down, to and from a central server. Wouldn’t this be terrific on a 4-hour flight with no wifi? Each of our devices acts as a mini-server, hosting content for everyone else.

Publishers would freak out over this model, at least initially. They’ll no longer control distribution and it will create holes in their analytics. I’m sure most, if not all, publishers have something buried in their terms and conditions preventing this sort of thing, but those who want to embrace broader distribution and consumption will eventually warm up to it.

Btw, the model isn’t limited to web pages. Think about the benefits this offers the book publishing sector. What if you could see a list of the popular ebooks in your neighborhood or among your fellow commuters? And what if you could pull a sample of one of those popular titles from someone else’s device, again, a particularly useful solution when you’re outside wifi and cellular range? If you decide you like that sample and you end up buying the ebook your peer-to-peer commuter friend gets credit for the sale with an affiliate cut of the resulting transaction.

We place way too much emphasis on the ability to measure global trends. You see it every day on Google, Twitter, etc. While we all care about these global trends, we’re also keenly interested in local and hyper-local trends. This peer-to-peer model addresses that point while also providing some relief for data plan limits and spotty wifi coverage.

How curation automation is going to disrupt content consumption

The best content curators have extensive topic knowledge and a knack for reader interests and preferences. That sounds like something only a living, breathing human can do, right? While that’s largely the case today, I believe technology will drive the biggest advancements in content curation tomorrow.

Narrative Science is a terrific example. I met Kris Hammond of Narrative Science a few years ago when he spoke at a Tools of Change conference I helped produce. If you’re not familiar with them, Narrative Science is one of those companies that develop tools to automate story writing.

You may have read a computer-generated article or two this week and never even realized it. Think you can tell the difference between human- and auto-generated content? Stick around and take the quiz at the end of this article… 

Data is at the heart of the stories generated by Narrative Science but what exactly is “data”? In the current model, data typically consists of numbers, tables and other highly structured information. For example, the narrative summary of last night’s baseball game could be auto-generated using nothing more than the game’s box score, the data from the event.

As platforms like Narrative Science’s evolve, so will the definition of data. 

Last week I wrote an article about why all-you-can-read subscriptions need curation. We’re drowning in a sea of content and we need better tools to help us uncover and consume the must-read content. There’s a big difference between what you and I consider must-read though and that’s where the curation element comes into play.

A number of industry pundits criticized my thinking and pointed out the high cost of this sort of curation. I agree. Curation today almost always requires human intervention. But what happens when that’s no longer the case?

What happens when an application is able to rewrite and summarize the sea of daily content that’s most important to you? What happens when this tool, which knows your interests, your job responsibilities, etc., is able to deliver a fully-automated Cliffs Notes version of everything you need to read that day?

I think that will be a game-changer and will become an extremely important, real world application for artificial intelligence. Will it put writers out of business? No, not necessarily. After all, most of the original content still has to be written by someone. But it will help amplify the content that needs to be read, enabling it to rise above all the noise that surrounds it. 

Still think this is nothing more than sci-fi and wishful thinking? Take this short quiz and see if you can figure out whether each of these excerpts were human-generated or computer-generated.

How the Internet of Things (IoT) affects content

You’ve undoubtedly heard all the hype by now. Sensors will be everywhere and we’re about to sink in the sea of data they’ll produce. Don’t just view the Internet of Things (IoT) as how your coffeemaker connects to the web though. This phenomenon means so much more, especially for content creators and distributors.

Fast forward with me to a time where your car and house are connected via the IoT. You’ll no longer need to keep track of oil changes, tire rotations, furnace filter replacement dates, etc. You’ll have immediate access to all the particulars via a dashboard app or receive text alerts when something needs attention.

All that data will also help identify trends and the likelihood of something going awry. For example, based on your driving tendencies and those of thousands of other drivers, this data will help determine when you’ll need to perform future maintenance and repairs. These predictive analytics will help you avoid even costlier repairs down the road.

What does any of this have to do with content?...

I’ve just outlined a terrific opportunity for creators of how-to and DIY information. If your organization offers content for weekend warriors or anyone comfortable turning a wrench, well, the IoT could be a game-changer for you.

Those sensor vendors and app developers will want to offer more than just the raw data. The value of their products increases significantly if they can also help their customers with their maintenance and repair projects.

Think of this as a whole new distribution channel with plenty of interesting revenue model options. Freemium, premium, subscription, micro-transaction…they’re all viable models here, but don’t forget the need to share some of that new revenue with the companies providing the sensors and apps.

The IoT opportunity goes well beyond the examples I’ve mentioned here. Think about the type of content you produce and how sensors and the IoT will eventually open new doors for discovery and distribution. The possibilities are endless and the data is just the beginning.

Evernote as a content distribution channel

I’m addicted to Evernote. I use it throughout the day to capture my meeting notes and other thoughts. I was recently joking with a fellow Evernote user and colleague about how the tool makes us smarter and dumber; smarter because we now have a record of everything but dumber because that record lives on a device, not in our heads. 

Evernote is an interesting platform to study from a content distribution point of view. There are plenty of users like me who rely on Evernote and interact with the tool a dozen or more times every day. Evernote realizes that and they’re creating an entirely new content discovery ecosystem to make the tool even more useful.

I’m talking about the Context service Evernote added to their Premium version. Buried deep in that announcement is a note about how Context integrates The Wall Street Journal with your notes. It’s a brilliant idea and a content discovery and reuse pattern we’ll see much more of in the future.

Let’s say you’re prospecting for new customers and doing some homework prepping for a meeting with one of them tomorrow. We’ll call them XYZ Corp. You do Google searches, review the XYZ Corp’s website and research new XYZ Corp. contacts on LinkedIn. As you’re doing this you’re gathering details and placing them in Evernote as a cheat sheet for tomorrow’s meeting. Evernote Premium now sees that you’re recording information about XYZ Corp. and pulls up relevant articles about them from The Wall Street Journal; all this takes place within Evernote turning the tool into a new content discovery and consumption resource.

This isn’t rocket science and it’s not anything new. Google’s Gmail scans your inbox and has been serving up related ads for years. But now we’re seeing tools like Evernote take it to a new level: Rather than simply serving links to random sites, Evernote feeds users content from a highly trusted source and brand, The Wall Street Journal.

The key, of course, is to serve this content in an unobtrusive manner. Evernote is a productivity tool and the last thing I want is to be faced with a bunch of popups and annoying interruptions, forcing me to click close buttons so I can focus on the work at hand. Privacy advocates will once again freak out, but over time they too will realize there are benefits to services like this.

This is just the start. Look for tools like Evernote to add more content streams to their Premium version; maybe they’ll even have vertical editions of the tool (e.g., Evernote for Investors, Evernote for Marketers, etc.). Publishers should jump at the opportunity to participate because it extends their reach and helps keep their brands in front of readers, both old and new.

The future of content recommendation services

If you’re overly concerned about data privacy you’ll want to stop reading right now because I’m about to give you a glimpse of the future that will make you bristle.

For the rest of you, I’d like to describe a vision I have of how content services will dramatically improve, become widely used, and even paid for, in the not too distant future.

You’re probably familiar with services like Taboola and Outbrain. They’re the technologies behind all the “You may also like” or “Sponsored content” blocks of links that have become ubiquitous on websites. They use sophisticated algorithms to suggest related content you might be interested in reading. 

Then there’s Google. My Android phone’s Google app does a terrific job presenting nuggets of information I might find useful. It’s equally awful at it too though. On a recent trip through Atlanta it suggested the CDC as one of the nearby attractions I might want to check out. I realize Ebola is a hot topic right now but is there really anything in my Google-accessible content stream that would suggest the CDC as an interesting destination for me? 

Google’s app, as well as its News service, are both casting an extremely wide net in the hopes that something in their recommendation stream will cause me to click. Every year I find Google’s stream suggesting fewer and fewer truly relevant articles for me. This, despite the fact that they have access to so much of what I’m doing, where I’m going and what I’m interested in.

What’s wrong with this picture? These services should be improving, not simply providing an even wider pipeline of content, most of which doesn’t interest me at all.

What’s missing is a service that pays much closer attention to who I am and what’s likely to engage me. That’s one of the things I always liked about Zite, the content service that recommends more content based on what you’ve previously read in the app. I used to spend a great deal of time in Zite every day. Then they got acquired and for some reason their stream just isn’t as engaging for me as it used to be.

What’s needed is a service that is much more closely aligned with everything I do, or as much of my life as I’m willing to let it access. I’m talking about my email in-box as well as the websites I visit and even my work and personal calendars. Here are a few use cases for the service I’d like to see: 

  • Prepare for trips – It’s nice that Google shows a card for this afternoon’s flight status, but they could do so much more. How about tracking my personal interests and serving up recommendations for downtime activities? Knowledge of my interests would hopefully prevent an app from suggesting I visit the CDC, for example. This service could also interact with my TripIt account, notice that I made a car rental reservation and suggest a better alternative (e.g., a better rate with another carrier, one that earns me miles on my preferred airline, or a better option like Uber or Lyft, etc.) How about a few facts and figures about where I’m heading? This destination info is available on Wikipedia, so it would be easy to tap into that content source as well as many others.
  • Provide news and research for upcoming meetings – The assumption here is that I’ll allow this service to access my daily calendar. When it sees I have a 2-hour meeting with XYZ Corp next week it begins early by creating and sending me a snapshot of the organization as well as noteworthy news about XYZ Corp. The detailed version arrives a week before the meeting, giving me plenty of time to become an expert on the company. The day before or the morning of the meeting I then get a shorter follow-up with any updates that weren’t available earlier.
  • Stay on top of the competition – The key here is to know the company I work for and the industry we’re part of. Better yet, if it’s a large, multi-sector company, it knows exactly which area I focus on and tailors everything around that space. The service then uses all the publicly available data sources to feed me updates and insights about the competition.
  • Tap into streams from leaders and celebrities – How would you like to gain access to the news and content streams being delivered to people like Warren Buffet or Jeff Bezos? Obviously they’ll want to filter their public version to avoid accidentally leaking confidential information, but there would still be enough content to make for some very interesting reading. Rather than waiting for Bill Gates to tell us what books he read and recommended from last year, let’s see what’s on his inbound content stream today.
  • All this, with no manual configuration required – Some elements of what I’ve described above are available today, if you’re willing to spend a lot of time configuring your keywords and splicing together multiple services. Don’t forget that your interests change over time…and so does your calendar, of course. I want a service that is always up-to-date based on what it sees me doing throughout the day and week. It needs to be fully automated and change as my interests and focus change.

I can see multiple flavors of this service. The simplest one is free and is funded by ads and sponsorships, just like many of Google’s existing services. A paid version eliminates the ads and comes with more bells and whistles. And remember that leaders/celebrities idea? Those could be structured as subscriptions to that individual’s feed. Plenty of people would pay a monthly fee for access to these streams. And although Warren Buffett doesn’t need this additional income, he could always have it flow to his favorite charity.

We’ve got a long way to go before we’ll see a service like this, but I’ll be among the first in line to sign up for it when one arrives.

What is “adaptive content”?

That’s a question a few people asked me via email after a webinar I co-presented last week. I briefly mentioned it on one of my webinar slides but I didn’t spend a lot of time digging into it. 

I talked about how the concept of layering enables publishers to turn their static e-products into dynamic, premium offerings. Layering is just the first step towards adaptive content. I’ll also admit that my definition of adaptive content is different from what you’ll read elsewhere.

A quick Google search shows a variety of articles and opinions on the definition and future of adaptive content. I’m not suggesting the perspectives found via those links are wrong; I just believe they’re not going far enough.

You’ll find plenty of people who talk about adaptive content in the context of distribution channels and devices. (The latter, btw, borders more on responsive design IMHO.) What you don’t see much of in the existing dialog on adaptive content is the actual user, the person reading the content.

So when I talk about adaptive design I’m envisioning it not from a channel or device POV. I’m thinking more about the user, their experience, tendencies and interests. That sounds creepy, I know, but it’s going to happen. Twenty years ago most people would have balked at the notion of an email app that presents you with ads based on subjects it deems relevant to the contents of your inbox. Today, however, Gmail does just that and reportedly has hundreds of millions of users.

At some point down the road digital content apps (including your web browser) will use similar capabilities to present that how-to ebook or e-zine in a manner that’s completely tailored to you. And you’ll never have to tell it a thing for it to spin up that custom experience. Our devices (and the apps loaded on them) will constantly track your behavior and use that information to dynamically present the next piece of content.

Let’s say you and I are building decks and we just bought the same digital how-to product with step-by-step instructions and videos. Your tablet knows you’re quite familiar with power tools and construction projects because it’s noted that you’ve contributed several knowledgeable (and highly-rated) answers on one of the popular DIY forums. Your tablet also knows that you regularly read the most popular DIY e-zines and that you tend to focus on articles covering lumber construction projects. 

I, on the other hand, hardly know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver and my tablet is well aware of my lack of knowledge on the deck-building topic. 

So the content and pace of the digital how-to product we both bought is presented in one manner on your tablet and in a completely different manner on mine. The source content is all the same and you can certainly drill down into more of the basics that I’m presented with, but the app assumes you’re beyond all that.

This changes everything, of course. Content must be written in a more granular manner and it must be richly tagged to ensure it’s presented properly in every use-case. Equally important is the need for the app/device to pay attention to how the content is then consumed by all these different users and make adjustments for future users. Maybe nine out of the first ten novices jump to a later topic that appears later in the product; the app should learn from this and rearrange the content sequence for the eleventh novice.

Yes, this type of model will require users to opt in and privacy advocates will completely freak out over the possible consequences of such a platform. The benefits will far outweigh the risks though, and I’m convinced this vision of adaptive content will become a reality down the road.

Recorded version of Olive SmartLayers webinar

If you missed yesterday's webinar, where we unveiled Olive's new SmartLayers technology, you'll want to watch the recorded version below. It was a great discussion about where digital content is today and where it's likely heading tomorrow. Check it out and let us know what you think of these first steps towards a model where content is eventually both layered and adaptive.