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Net publishing demands new models
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There are some big-name publishers on the Web who appear to be doing very nicely. CNN, The Washington Post, The LA Times, Wired and a number of others have significant levels of online readership but there's a problem brewing.

As with all other aspects of the Net, the average user is suffering from "information overload". There are already so many publications on the Net that nobody can hope to browse more than a handful in search of articles that might be of interest.

Of course this doesn't mean that CNN and the rest are going to see a reduction in the numbers of visitors to their sites but it does mean that they may not be able to fully exploit the potential market that exists amongst the rapidly growing audience of Net users.

Search engines won't help!
If they're not looking for timely information, Net users can turn to search engines as a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff - but if it's news or topical articles you're looking for then they're all hopelessly out of date - new submissions often taking weeks to appear in their search database.

This commentator believes that the answer to this dilema will appear in the form of those often-maligned "link sites".

The publishing world seems to have split opinions over the acceptability of these link sites. Some, such as the Shetland Times which made world-Net-headlines last year with its anti-linking injunction against rival The Shetland News last year, consider "direct to story" links from other sites to be a breach of their intellectual property rights. Others such as the LA Times are far more accepting of such things (providing the linking is done in an ethical manner - see this story). A larger, third group appear to be fairly ambivalent - neither encouraging nor complaining about those third parties which link directly to their stories or features.

So how will link-sites help?

In a word "flavour". The operators of link-sites will organise the content of many other sites into I believe we're going to see a stratification of the publishing industry. At some time in the not too distant future we can expect to see the publishers and content creators (those who research, write and publish the stories) to become virtual wholesalers. They'll create the raw content and post it to their own Web sites.

Then, the link-sites will pick up the key components of that content and provide their own concise index to stories and articles from a wide range of such content producers.

So why will anyone go to a link-site when they could go direct to the publisher's?

In a word "convenience". It can take a lot of time to browse five or six of your favourite sites in search of some item of interest. When a link-site consolidates headlines and exerpts from all of those sites into a single page then they're offering something of real value to the reader.

In effect, we're going to end up with wholesale and retail content sites - the wholesaler producing the raw material and the retailer repackaging it in such a way as to match the demands of their target market.

Perhaps this model is best explained with a typical scenario:

If I'm a keen chess player I probably visit a couple of chess sites regularly - but I'd also want to be pointed to any interesting chess-related stories on other sites when they occur. A savvy retail-publisher could scan a large number of other sites and create a "Chess-Links" site that contained headlines and links to stories or articles on a large number of sites that the average chess-enthusiast may never think of visiting. Perhaps USA Today is carrying an article about chess today, maybe the Biafran Cowmilker's Journal is running a few paragraphs on how their local ten-player tournament. These items might well be of interest to other chess players - but unless they're regular readers of those publications they'd miss out.

By combining smart Web-robots and a little human input, a small "one-man-band" link-site operator can produce some very impressive results with only a minimal investment of time and money - much to the benefit of their target market.

The reason I'm so sure that this structure will become commonplace is that it's very much a "win-win" situation. The wholesaler wins by gaining access to a much wider audience, the retailer wins by being able to deliver a value-added package to whatever specific sector of the market they wish.

Would USA Today or the Biafran Cowmilker's Journal and their advertisers not benefit from the extra readership associated with the hits delivered via the Chess-Links site? Certainly those selling chess-related products would find such a site a more cost- effective place to advertise their wares than many of the more mainstream locations.

The revenues in both cases will of course come from advertising. The wholesaler delivers exposures for its advertisers each time someone arrives from a link-site. The link sites deliver exposures to its adverisers every time someone visits its own pages.

Of course this demands that a well understood and observed set of rules are put in place to cover the ethics of such linking. There are very definite limits as to what can be considered "acceptable practice" in this area. Sites such as Total News which seek to effectively republish without permission by using frames to place their own advertiser's messages directly alongside the content of a linked site is clearly unacceptable. In order for this model to work, both sides must receive equal benefit without compromising the rights of the other.

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