Monday, May 5, 2008

The Guy Who Makes the Lists, or, Aggregation Is Power

The Wall Street Journal just came out with new rankings for most influential business leaders (here).

Obviously, this is a sparkly day for Gary Hamel (#1) and the rising stars just behind him.

But what does a piece like this do for Tom Davenport, the ranker himself? He may not be Gary Hamel, but his position as someone who we depend on to tell us who is isn't too shabby either.

The U.S. News and World Report gets as much out of the annual college rankings as the top ("top") schools. And is the Academy around for any other reason than to give us the Awards (I mean really)? These groups are powerful because we rely on them to get it right.

Point being, the guy who makes the lists--who tells you who to listen to, where to go to school, what to watch, what to read--may be just as important as the folks on the lists themselves.

And hence, the internet aggregators. Google makes its money by giving you authoritative lists (search results, feed reader). does too. These companies aren't in the content business; they're in the list business.

We all know the content business in publishing is suffering these days. That brings up the question: Can, and should, you do both lists *and* content? Should the NYT list articles not in the NYT as "most emailed"? Would more people visit their site if they did? Should our company's site list competitors' books as "similar products" if that will make more people think of us as "the authority" in our field?


John M. Jackson said...

I think the beauty of sites like digg and rests in their seemingly "natural" or viral authority: newsworthiness is determined by (continual) audience interest. But the NYT is a list maker as well: it distills all the information from the AP and determines what it wants its readers to see. The "most emailed" list is essentially a social bookmarking site functioning strictly within the context of a single publisher.

But I'm not answering the question. You ask whether publishers should link to competitors. In regard to articles, what separates NYT from digg is the in-depth analysis that comes along with the event, whereas digg simply lists events. And since the NYT is somewhat responsible (and reputable) for the analysis it provides, I can see some merit in not linking to other news orgs except in response or reference.

With book publishers, I think the same applies but with one exception. While I can see little advantage to linking out, there is potentially huge advantage to linking in. That probably isn't the best term. What I mean is this: "If you like this book by Stanford UP, you might also like our book" as opposed to "if you liked our book, you should also check out Stanford UP." That would at least insinuate that the publ. has some authority on the subject (that it knows about outside materials), especially if customers are happy with the suggestion.

I don't remember which issue it was, but Wired mag recently had an article on a Netflix competition to see if anyone could come up with an algorithm that suggested movies 10% better than the one they currently use. Last I checked, the lead competitor had made it up to 8%. With sites like Netflix, having an automated system is a neccessity. But for publishing sites, which produce and handle a (relatively) much smaller inventory than Netflix, subjective/editorial suggestions are possible in combination with user generated ones.

This, I think, is where sites like Amazon, Netflix, and even LibraryThing fall short: I can't make direct recommendations for Item A based on my experience with Item B. At least, not one that will effect the algorithm. At best, I can rank both of them highly and hope the bot gets the hint :-)

Despite the limitations, I continue to use google and netflix because they usually give me the results I'm looking for. This is great as long as I'm comfortable with experiencing limited variety. ~J

AGW said...

John, I think that's a great idea--linking in. Because it does convey that authority, while still suggesting that our stuff is better. Better, I say!

As for the NYT, an interesting post from earlier this week from Seth Godin's blog suggests some related advantages that the Times might want to keep in consideration.