Jeff Jarvis‘ (@jeffjarvis) “What Would Google Do?” is a book, despite its two-year -old copyright, remains relevant today. I was afraid upon choosing it for a 2011 class that the ideas outlined in Jarvis’ book were going to be dated. Two years in the technology industry, after all, is today’s equivalent to yesterday’s eternity. (The only thing, I have to say, that I found to be dated in this book was that the New York Times was no longer charging for online content. But hey, you can’t foresee the future in paying for content online…or can you?)
Nevertheless, years down the road, even when Jarvis’ concepts are considered passe in the media and technology world, I do believe that the namesake of the book will endure.
Over the years since the site’s launch in 1998, Google has become much more than a search engine. Oh so much more.
Do you want to find a way from Point A to Point B? Google has an app for that. How about analyzing the traffic on your website? Google can also help you out there. Want to see what the latest news of the day is? Google News aggregates the world’s headlines for you to sift through by date. What about communicating with others? That’s why there’s Gmail – with features added over the years like (video) chat and the ability to call your phone.
But Google does not just continue to find and better platforms for individuals out there to live their lives more conveniently. Google challenges – whether it means to or not – other industries to step up their game to keep users at the forefront of their missions and stay abreast of technology.
As a member of the media industry, I have seen first hand what the dawn of the digital age has done to the newspaper business. Lucky for me, I am still knee-deep in that industry (that statement is dripping with sarcasm), but I am trying to take some queues from Jarvis’ book – even if my company may be a bit stuck in its ways. (The print product is the cash cow!)
I wanted to discuss my top five takeaways from Jarvis’ book and what it could mean for the traditional media industry. As a novice newspaper editor trying to have my company see the value in digital – though perhaps we need to think more mobile now – I will even throw some of my own learning experiences in what I have learned from Jarvis’ quest to figure out, “What would Google do?”
5. Elegant organization.
Jarvis talks about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s ability to design a social platform by organizing Harvard students’ lives in networks or graphs. Zuckerberg built a community around interactivity and networking – allowing individuals to share everything from their names and political and religious leanings to relationship statuses and place of work. Soon this community grew beyond the Harvard campus and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon.
While not all newspapers have the funds to develop sites for their community to organize around, they can use these types of sites to foster this type of elegant organization and promote interactivity amongst their readers.
My newspaper uses Facebook and Twitter religiously every Friday when our publication hits the news stands and try to use it during the week to promo stories and engage our readers. With a low subscription number – hovering around the 1,700 mark in a town home to about 800 to 900 – it’s important we have a tool that connects us with them electronically – besides email.
According to our latest Google Analytics report – yes, Google, you are ubiquitous – that was checked the day I wrote this blog post, April 15, 41.9 percent (1,690) visits to our site came through Google while 16 percent, or 644 visits, came through Mr. Zuckerberg’s referral site, Facebook. Twitter is not quite as used in our community of followers, sending only 11 visitors to our site in the past month.
So, while we may not be the next Mark Zuckerberg and creating a platform for elegant organization ourselves, we are taking advantage of what is out there to enhance our product.
4. Do what you do best and link to the rest.
Ah. The Almighty Link. I remember my first link. I just kept going back – further and further into the story.
Like Jarvis said, links allow for discovery. Links provide extra context. Links take you to a place you may have never thought to have gone to before. Communities are built around linking.
Just look at Jarvis’ “Dell hell” example.
Jarvis did one of the things he does best. He blogged. But this time – this time he was angry. Promises were broken, products were shoddy and as he simply put, “Dell sucked.”
Now, had Jarvis been the only customer that felt this way, a community would not have been built around this. But bloggers serendipitously discovered Jarvis’ content and then linked back to his blog post. The cycle persisted, and Dell saw the effect.
Right now, we currently run the same articles from the newspaper on our website. For our newspaper, if we could start shortening our online versions of the stories that run in the hard copy publication, we could allow our readers to discover more about the story than the space we are provided in the weekly paper.
3. Small is the new big.
My biggest takeaway from this excerpt was this: “It’s the relationship between small and big that is evolving.”
Competition got the best of contributors of the media industry over the years. Now, whenever a new start up emerges in a traditional outlet’s market, it never seems like industry professionals have a discussion of cultivating a relationship that could benefit both ventures.
When I was in undergrad at West Virginia University, I co-founded the project West Virginia Uncovered. The concept was going into rural communities and working with the legacy publications to better establish their online presence. Newspaper professionals received free training in digital journalism and students participating in the class were sent to these papers’ towns to produce digital content.
Some papers we approached before launching the project immediately took to the idea – The Parsons Advocate being one of them. The owners had been meaning to grow its online presence, and this was just the catalyst they were looking for.
Others were not so receptive. Perhaps they looked at it competition. In this case, we were the big, they were the small. We were a university that had received grant funding – that was only going to benefit them – and we were planning on sending some of the finest budding journalists into their community to report. Perhaps they didn’t see it as something that would be good for their loyal following.
At any rate, during the launch year of Uncovered, we had four partner papers. The following year I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA on the project, and we served about 14 weeklies in the state. And I know, now its third year, that the project has added yet more papers – because my weekly is one of them.
I see these types of relationships as beneficial ones. Why not work with university students that have to produce stories for a class? You are getting quality work produced for the pages of your paper and site for free. New startups can offer a fresh spin on a subject matter that, perhaps, the paper doesn’t already tackle. I say partner up.
These small ventures could be the key to some big possibilities in the future.
2. Simplify, simplify.
I think that the digital age confused some in the media industry.
Hm. What shall we do with this new-fangled thing? This “website?”
Obviously money needs to be made. But the reason I, the consumer, am coming to the site is to your, the publication’s, site is for the news – not to have an expandable ad push all of the news content down. (The two papers in Charleston, W.Va., owned by Charleston Newspapers – The Charleston Gazette and The Charleston Daily Mail – that used to do that have now given the reader the option of expanding the ad themselves. Kudos Charleston Newspaper execs. Kudos.) Sites with automatic players is another one that, I think, can be simplified.
This thing called Web 2.0 excited a lot of people. And let’s face it – there are a lot of programmers who can do some cool things these days. So why not put all the bells and whistles on a site? Can that site also make me a latte while it’s at it?
This is when we ask ourselves, “What would Google do?”
Look at that homepage. Does it get anymore simple than that? I really enjoyed the anecdote Jarvis cited in his book about Google’s test groups waiting almost a minute to “let the rest of the page load.” No bells and whistles for this search site.
I like a site that can do things. I like a high-functioning site – one that has a video section that I can explore. But I want to tell that video player when to stop and start. That’s simple, right? Sites that have opportunities for readers to submit news, comments and corrections, that promotes interactivity. I love the Washington Post’s redesign where it puts the comments and corrections up front. They are telling the readers that they want to make the product better for you.
Now, I know the “simplify, simplify” rule goes beyond just a site. It’s about the business plan, the daily operations. Like Jarvis said, “To be simple is to be direct. To be direct is to be honest. To be honest is to be human. To be human is to be in a conversation. To be in a conversation is to collaborate. To collaborate is to hand over control.”
Which takes me to my No. 1 point…
1. Give the people control and we will use it.
This was my No. 1 takeaway from “What Would Google Do?” because I feel like it was somewhat of a recurring theme throughout. Jarvis’ law came up more than once. And this day in age, why wouldn’t a company involve its customers more?
From a personal standpoint, the sites I most often spend time on outside of work is Facebook and Twitter. Sad, I know. But – don’t be so quick to judge.
I spend time on Facebook to keep up with my family and friends back home. About eight months ago, I moved away to come to American University’s interactive journalism program and take a job in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Working and going to school all but one day a week doesn’t give much time for visits. Facebook gives me the control to do it. I have an ongoing message thread with a few of my closest girlfriends from high school, all of us now pursuing post-graduate degrees in various cities around the country, and we keep up with one another that way. Facebook has provided a platform to do that.
Now, I have Twitter or Tweetdeck up more often than my Facebook page. This not only allows me to link to and tweet my own thoughts in 140 characters or less, but because of the community that this platform has allowed me to build, I get my news this way. Who goes to sites directly anymore? I don’t go directly to the source as often as I used to. Like I mentioned back in point No. 5, referral sites are a huge driver of traffic to news sites.
Now, once I click on a linked headline from Twitter, I may bounce around on the site some, provide some feedback or just go back to one of the two sites that I have found really enable me to have the most control.
Control, I found, was most essential. Google does it. Why shouldn’t you?