One of the biggest challenges of collecting information on the web is the question of authority.
When Google or Bing turns your inquiry into a string of results – the real inquiry should begin:
- Is the information accurate?
- Is the source biased or trusted?
- Is the source creditable?
- Are the sources cited creditable?
- What reporting standards were used?
- Were the sources primary or secondary?
- Is the information current?
Call this the authority factor. Information with high authority can be trusted. Information with low authority cannot. For example, if I read an article in the New York Times, I know that the Times has been considered one of the best newspapers in the world for nearly a century. They have strident news gathering policies and a strict editing and fact-checking system in place. It’s not infallible, but I give high authority to information I get from the Times.
I give a lower authority to any blog that pops up in my search results. But not all blogs are created equal. I trust content from blogs that I read regularly and I’m familiar with the authors (such as Dan Kennedy’s Media Nation or Rod Lott’s Bookgasm). I treat any information from an unknown blog – especially from authors who don’t cite sources or use hyperlinks with suspicion. I absolutely dismiss outright any blog where the author remains anonymous.
Authority is about to take a blow on search, however. Google this week announced real-time search. Now your inquiry will lead to a pull down window with results from social networks like Facebook, MySpace, FriendFeed, and Twitter. They will scroll in real-time based on the inquiry you wrote in the search box. So if you type “Darwin” in the search box – you’ll also get real-time updates from social networks on “Darwin” as well as results from other more traditional sources.
This is supposed to be a mechanism that points people in the direction of ongoing conversations – opening up participation. It will probably work wonderfully for that.
But it will also add millions of status updates and tweets into the search mix. In other words, low authority sources will soon increase exponentially on Google (and we can soon expect real-time search to be rolled out by Bing and Yahoo!). This dilutes the reliable information found in web searches – mixing in the personal and trivial with the weighty and authoritative. I’m sure that blogger Andrew Keen (author of “Cult of the Amateur”) is rolling his eyes about this announcement.
This is going to be a challenge for content creators of all stripes – from the New York Times to brands as diverse as Nike and Akamai. More noise, more competition for attention. Individual complaints about service, products and price once reserved for close friends and colleagues will now vie for position with articles from TIME magazine and content created by the companies themselves.
But there are also huge advantages for social media savvy companies to increase their search engine rankings. As my colleague Daniel B. Honigman notes on Weber Shandwick’s Social Studies blog: “This means that in the past, new content may have taken several minutes to get indexed by the search engine; that waiting period is no more. As soon is content is posted and linked, it’s searchable.”
We should also note that much of this new content wasn’t even available to search engines – until now. Companies that are on top of social media – blogging, micro-blogging and active on social media networks will have a real opportunity to shape the conversations about them, their products, and the issues most important to them. As Daniel notes:
“Companies both large and small must create an active presence on the social web; it doesn’t matter if your social media monitoring efforts tell you that there are 20 or 200,000 relevant conversations each month about your employees, brands or products. The more content a brand is able to create, the more often that content will appear in Google’s real time search results.”
As authority flattens out and the playing field levels out online – companies need to be participating in social media or risk leaving their reputations in the hands of others – and many of those “others” have low authority and unreliable information.
So what are your thoughts about real-time search? Is it a valuable tool? Or will it add more clutter and confusion?