Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Just Answer the Question

Jakob Nielsen's latest Alertbox, When Search Engines Become Answer Engines, shows how web users no longer value individual sites as much because they know they can find whatever they want on the web using search engines.

I find this myself - there is no one technical site that covers every problem I have - I get my answers by Googling for them, using Google's search engine to scour websites and newsgroups for answers.

Jakob goes on to point out the consequences of this for website owners, and strategies to increase loyal users versus unique visiters.

It is clear that websites cannot create loyal users just by reproducing content found elsewhere on the web, users will rely on search engines to find the pages that are most relevant to their needs and will only stick around if;
 a) Your content is superior to that elsewhere; or
 b) Your contextual links interest them, and/or help them answer their current question.

There is an interesting parrallel in current theories about how Web Services will affect distributed data. Most businesses that operate in multiple locations put up with the need to replicate their data (e.g. contacts lists, sales figures, etc.) around their various locations. Broadband web access and WANs/VPNs have gone some way to reduce this need, but it is still the industry convention.
We replicate because there has been no sensible alternative. Yet replication is an inherently weak and error prone model that causes inconsistency, complexity and huge costs. Web services based interoperability offers interesting solutions to this problem as the new SOAP based Internet standards enable pervasive accessibility.

Business users just want the answer, they don't care which data store it comes from. More to the point, they will have problems with data that is inaccurate or out of date. In the same way as websites need to concentrate on the information that is unique to them, so too might corporate data stores specialise in the data they own, and then use Web Services to make that data accessible to users that might previously have had to rely on a local replica of that data.

I think that Microsoft's commitment to architectures that support Web Services and distributed collaboration (such as .NET, SharePoint Technologies and SQL Reporting Services) will help drive this move to more accessible local data. With SharePoint Portal Server the power of web search engines is harnessed to make corporate data more accessible to all users. In fact it provides better functionality because it handles user authentication, different levels of access permissions and rich meta data.

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