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Problem Finding, Department of

There have been so many books and things about problem-solving that we figure most problems are already solved. So we need more problems to keep all those expert problem solvers busy.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

 

See you later, aggregator

A problem is just an opportunity that’s being mismanaged. Here I am going to mull about some opportunities. In case anybody is interested in how to mismanage them.

One of the biggest problems the web presents is a low barrier to entry. People who want to enter, of course, don’t consider that a problem. Until they realize that they also want to be heard. People who want to find things soon see the problem created by a low barrier to entry. What you want is of no use to you if you can’t find it. And something is not cheap if you have to spend a lot of time finding it. (Unless your time is cheap.)

Years ago, long before the web, people warned of the information explosion. Now people hardly mention it. Probably buried in all that information. But we have not been overwhelmed by information because our species long ago developed a two layer defense against information overload: Ignore and aggregate.

Aggregators have a great history in human progress. We are, after all, descended from hunter-gatherers. (You are entitled to wonder which of these roles is the most like aggregating.)

The web has created problems for many previously comfortable aggregators. Some earlier discussions here mentioned the established book publishers and the established labels of music CD’s. They used to control the gates to their markets by their expensive production facilities. The web offers alternative, and cheaper, production methods. That doesn’t mean aggregators are not needed. It just means that new aggregators can enter the market without production facilities. I’ve been trying to think of things aggregators do to add value when there are no expensive production facilities. Here are some ideas. (Conjure up a vision of traders on the Great Silk Road before you continue. Then conjure up visions of the produce section of your local grocery market.)

Evaluate. The web increases demand for evaluation and lowers the cost of entry into that field. The web is also open to multiple ways to evaluate. Google evaluates by counting links. Other sites evaluate by counting votes. Or credentials. Or reviewers. Perhaps there is a role here for different kinds of aggregators. For example, one that aggregates evaluations.

Organize. If a person’s time is valuable, there is value in organizing things so people can easily find what they want. Search organizes by words. That is better than nothing, but not by much. Google has added other qualifiers (search in domain, Google Scholar). There may be room for a site that aggregates the kind of qualifiers people want to use in search. And probably room for many sites that specialize in topics of interest and support aggregation in ways that are specific to that topic.

Package. Would you believe that grocery stores can make money by packaging chopped lettuce, tomatoes, onions, celery, and the like into a plastic bowl? Believe it? You’ve seen it. Editors figured how to do that with short stories. The Reader’s Digest figured out how to do that with magazine content and with music of the ‘50s. Yahoo and podcasting are figuring out how to do that with the web. RSS feeds let people set up their own aggregation. Anything more needed? Probably not in Geeksville, but over in Elsewhere there may be a market for customized packaging. For example, a site that lets you specify your interests and offers you packaged feeds from people with similar interests profiles. Sort of like a Amazon.com, but further downriver.

Deliver. The web solved all the delivery problems, didn’t it? Well, no. Every solution opens up new possibilities. Every possibility exposes new problems. You could download mp3 files. Then all you had to do was get them to your mp3 player. That’s another one of those things that worked in Geeksville. That problem got managed effectively when Podcasting arrived. Now there are several aggregators that will feed you Podcasting selections and send them to your mp3 player. PC magazine offers a webpage aggregator that lets me load a whole group of web pages are once. “One click does the trick.” Soon there will be efforts to develop a video aggregation scheme. (Meaning VOD with user direction.) The twilight of the networks.

But notice, in this delivery mode, the assumption box: Users want only audio. Or only video. Or only text. Suppose I want to hear about what happens when the oil runs out (as Ken Rutkowski recently asked). Suppose I don’t care about the format. Just the content. Then what I would need is a content site that can locate and deliver relevant content in various formats. Including blogs.

Market. Here I mean “get something in front of people who might want it and show them why some people would want to buy it.” Amazon and Ebay have figured out how to market physical products, at least when people have a good idea of the product they want. They are also trying to give people a roadmap to the specific product that suits them, by providing evaluations, reviews, and samples. But there is probably room for content-specific aggregation, particularly if it can gain credibility with visitors.

Present. I hadn’t thought about this until I realized that a lot of non-fiction (magazines and books) is a kind of aggregation. So are review articles in professional journals. Put one of those professional articles next to a general interest article on the same topic and the role of presentation will be obvious. Both may show suitable presentations for their intended audiences. But they have to match presentations to the audience. (This works a lot conversations in Geeksville and those in Elswhere.)

Websites have to do the same kind of audience matching. There may be room for several websites with similar content, but with presentation for different audiences. Does Amazon.com offer a presentation that suits all English speakers? If not, who is unsuited and what do they need?

Exchange. A market deals with exchange. We usually think money. But anything of value can be part of an exchange. Part of the money exchange on the web has been aggregated by Pay Pal and similar services. But people bring eyeballs and earbuds. Advertisers pay big money for such things. People also bring opinions. Vividence.com has figured out one way to pay people for opinions. One of the strengths of the web is that it can change marketing from a monologue to a conversation. There may be some big opportunities there for people who figure out how to make that work.

Customer wants. Entrepreneurs work by aggregating customer wants and finding a way to satisfy them. The web offers new opportunities for aggregating customer wants. Aggregating customer wants and presenting them in a useful form the appropriate marketers is a service that might be the basis of a valuable web business.

The above is just preliminary mulling. I think I may have some better ideas next week. Probably somebody will send them to me. Then maybe I can get more specific about website models.

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