During the industrial age, information was a scarce commodity. The flow of information was controlled by the mass media – books, newspapers, television – were the sole distributors of information. The media during this age had a huge influence on society because the mass media was effectively the "gatekeeper" of information in society. Supply, or rather the distribution-capacity to supply information, was limited.
Criticism of these gatekeepers occurred for their power on what information they distributed, a thing the internet changed. We now live in the Information Age, which has come on the back of the internet. This has opened up the distribution points of information ?¢‚Ç¨‚Äú access to information is no longer dependent on the mass media – and availability is no longer confined by physical constraints (the internet has potentially an infinite storage). No longer do the traditional gatekeepers control the flow of and access to information.
The consequence of losing the old gatekeepers is that information is now plenty and consumers face information overload. Due to an environment of limited distribution in the Industrial Age, the mass media by consequence filtered information for consumers. Now with infinite information available, consumers are finding it difficult to filter information: identifying quality information was a role that wasn’t totally appreciated before. The cost of consuming quality information is being bourne by the consumer, as they are forced to identify it themselves.
The attention economy has risen as an important factor, as consumers only have limited attention to view the now unlimited amount of information. The new scarce commodity is no longer information, but the attention of consumers. Demand for information is now limited – people only have so much time to sift through the abundance of information.
Why search and aggregation services are valuable to consumers
The 1990s saw the development of search engines as a solution to this problem. Search engines have now become the new gatekeepers of information, as they provide consumers a means of filtering information and returning only what is relevant. Search works as a filtering system because consumers identify what they want, and a search engine simply needs to associate pre-indexed information that best matches that request. Innovation in search is about increasing the relevance of information to that request.
Other technologies have also been developed, which allow for the filtering of information. "Aggregation" services similar in role to what newspapers for example traditionally did – help pull together information from disparate sources. The value of these aggregation services, is in the value of relevant information to the consumer – a similar scenario to search. Search engines help consumers pull information; aggregation services push information, with what they think a consumer would want.
With both these "pull" and "push" technologies, consumers are reverting back to an industrial age concept of trust in brands. Google’s search for example, has impressive technology. But so do its rivals. User experience aside, the biggest advantage Google has is that users trust its brand more for the quality of information provided. Users trust Google to provide more relevant information – relevance is quality. The same reason why consumers used to trust a broadsheet newspaper over a student newspaper, is in the credibility of that brand to provide quality. The brand was and still is a way for consumers to filter information – or rather, trust others to provide information they can rely on.
If you are looking to start a new search engine that will beat Google: don’t. If you think you have a brand new of way identifying quality information: spend your efforts there. Remember the reason why search, RSS, and profiling aggregators are important to consumers, is because they help them find the best quality information, in the shortest period of time.
You can’t beat Google at search. And if you do, by the time you do, it will be a waste of time because the industry will have evolved. Innovation on the internet and the Information Age, is about understanding why the traditional gate keepers were so effective in what they did. The last decade has seen some clever innovation – but we still have a long way to go.