(Relevant) content is king

Many years ago now I joined a conference panel discussing the impact of search on news and publishing businesses. I was representing Ask Jeeves (you may need a certain maturity to recall this). At this time, power of search rankings had many incumbent businesses rattled. Google was really beginning to flex its muscles. There was a widely held view that search ranking was a barrier to content quality as amateur bloggers and minor content owners started to find an audience. Or, to be more accurate, there was a perceived barrier to established brands and incumbents in a given category. 

Add to that, the snakes and ladders effect of a change in the algorithm and some content owners could become very upset. On the panel, I was accused of disregarding heritage and quality and disregarding the apparently obvious benefit of editorial tradition. The establishment was seeking the justice of the status quo.

Relevance is still the key to search prominence. The most useful link rises to the top as the closest match to a query. Not necessarily the most familiar. The signals of that relevance are the links to that page and the source of those links. Well regarded, genuine links win out and dubious spammy links are punished. 

This is becoming the norm in social media too. Well shared, favourited and commented content will rise to the top of a well managed news feed. Those which favour the most recent posts alone miss the powerful signals of relevance. Facebook is becoming frighteningly effective at this. I think Flipboard are responding too.

Meanwhile in the world of corporate social tools, there seems to be no hint of this kind of awareness. The signals of relevance are secondary to a piling up of features and tools for the sales force to demonstrate progress in their arms race. A well managed feed is managed on behalf of the user whose feed it is, not the owner of the system or the organisation that pushes content into it. 

The content owner (or publisher) needs to earn the relevance in the context of the user not assume relevance as the buyer of the system. With the free and open access to the plethora of content on the web, us content commissioners need to take care to listen to the signals and to keep listening. As always, the threshold for a good experience is set by consumer web products who spend all of their time and effort on solving this problem. Many learning content publishers are assuming relevance when it has not been earned. They are reminiscent of that grumpy established conference audience all those years ago. 

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