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Research Commentary on the Spire Project

Getting Found.
By David Novak

As you search the Internet for a particular gem, keep in mind that at the other end, there are writers having difficulty catching your attention. Their difficulties, and your approach, have much to explain whether you will ever meet.

From a publisher's perspective, the Internet is a vast ocean of sites and destinations. Anything you do is very small. The obvious response is to work hard at writing something specific, unique - but you and I like to search in generalities. What to do?

There are two insights to note. Firstly, knowledge of a specific resource goes only a short distance from its origin. If you can not reach a place close enough to the site with the answer, you will not find it.

Take my recent search for the opera schedule in Rome. There would be no success in searching the Internet unless I can get close enough to the opera. The scatter gun approach of the search engines did not yield results, so I swapped to translating the webpages of an Italian search engine using Altavista's Babblefish. This made considerable progress, and I could locate one of the opera's of choice, but their schedule did not extend to my travel date.

The second vision is to think of the rather limited options open to a publisher. Outside of search engines and directories, many web-publishing efforts do not have a vast choice of promotional opportunities.

Obviously the more commercial sites can afford to pay for your attention. You may find their banners displayed over search engine result pages. You may find their results high on the search index page.

Often more specialised documents and articles will only be indexed into an existing website tree, or informed through established channels or sites which have an interest in this kind of thing - a search for the web traffic for the USPTO, or any government project, will confirm this.

The search was made much more difficult as numerous sites had out-of-date opera schedules from around the world. Further, I knew the site might be in Italian, though much of my initial search was in English. It was not until I searched Italian language sites that I got closer a current schedule.

Another way to place yourself in the publisher's shoes is to think how they would actively promote their site online. Promotional opportunities are actually intensely limited in most circumstances. Many promotional steps are of marginal value at the best of times.

We can imagine the Internet users as adventurers seeking the information they want. They stand at one end of the net, reaching out, exploring sites, seeking something that interests them, answers their questions, satisfies their needs.

On the other side are the publishers, who have placed a project on the web, and now are ready to seek visitors.

The question is in the middle ground, between visitors and publishers. Connections which lead the readers to the writers. In every other medium, there is great clarity as to how a reader finds a writer.

To find a book, we search a bookstore, a library or a book database. To reach your audience, you contact bookstores, and now online bookstores. Editors of papers may also be helpful.

On the Internet, things are different. There is a very real possibility that the people who want to read your work and writers who wish to reach an audience will never meet.

This is a strange situation. Authors are used to the difficulties of competition. But here we have a situation where your audience may get lost on the way to the lecture theatre. They may never arrive, not because they decided not to, but because they could not find the campus.

Even revolutionary projects will suffer from this degree of confusion. To succeed, you will need a better way to bridge the gap between reader and publisher.

The best way is to have an extensive footpath between you and the reader. Readers who search will find other sites that recommend you to their needs.

A second way is to pay for visitors. You may end up at 40cents/visitor, but you can advertise in prominent locations then convert the interest into sales.

Actually there are numerous opportunities to reach a few people interested in a particular resource, particularly if your resource has popular appeal. Unfortunately, without a full time position at promotion, you will not have the success you feel is appropriate.
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David Novak manages The Spire Project, an Internet research resource and thinktank.

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