Web 2.0: For the User, By the User

by: Joseph Pratt

I still remember the thrill of my father bringing home our first VCR. The features were dizzying – would it really record television shows in the middle of the night when we were fast asleep? Finally, just what we needed! Or did we?

Sadly, we only mastered the art of renting and playing movies. Confusion from unclear directions overrode our interest level in learning the finer points of our VCR’s features. Dad rightly claimed that corporate design labs and family dens have different standards for what might pass as “user-friendly”. We used the VCR as it suited our needs while disregarding its more complex features.

Some years and many technologies later “user friendly” is back defining, in digital terms, what is loosely referred to as Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is the latest generation Internet. It’s the perfect market for users and advertisers alike: now it's Adsense, not DoubleClick; live blogs, as opposed to static webpages.

That lack of user friendliness that kept us from mastering our VCR is similar to what made Web 1.0 the stuff of great, yet unrealized potential for online advertisers. Players in Web 1.0 could not help but stumble through the trial-and-error process before the onset of newer, more user-friendly technology that we see in today’s Internet.

The initial Internet bubble of five years ago is littered with Web 1.0 wreckage. It’s funny how many of us qualify as short sighted animals – some of us thought the Internet actually had limits. Okay, at least I thought the Internet actually had limits. Wall Street did, too. But stock prices don’t measure progress, they just measure the final word in investor sentiment.

‘Web 2.0’ is a term derived from a tech conference held in 2004 of the same name. It loosely describes a second coming of the Internet, a rebirth to replace the dross shed in the dot.com bubble burst of 2000-2001. Web 2.0 is characterized by its increased utility for the user. Rather than being limited to a select bunch of web gurus, everyday users participate in its development. As you read these very words, cynics, comics, and contrarians are scanning the horizon for Bubble 2.0, but as far as I can tell, it’s not here yet. Knock on wood.

This Web 2.0 business is a touchy subject for some malcontents. While some try to identify a Web 3.0 (catchphrase overkill?), others feel that a key characteristic of the Web 2.0 paradigm, the democratization of the Internet space, is what’s bound to fail us.

While being one of Web 2.0’s darlings because of its open-source success, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.org also receives criticism for the very same reasons. It’s the handiest of resources and has skyrocketed in popularity. What’s more, users repeatedly return to the site once they’ve used it, an impressive quality. It’s in the top 25 most heavily trafficked sites--not bad at all for a site that doesn’t advertise. Kind of like another free website whose popularity is not reflected in visible advertising: Google.

Wikipedia’s services are free. Its content is also wholly submitted by web-users. However, in being constructed by amateurs, Wikipedia is thus susceptible to the foibles of amateur contribution. Recently Wikipedia falsely identified a Tennessean as being linked to both of the Kennedy assassinations, a joke perpetrated by a co-worker. The open-ended format leaves such shenanigans possible.

The beauty of the open-source format is not questioned, but there are more issues than potentially spotty performance, or the occasional office prank. Wikipedia, by virtue of its free nature, smothers the chances for a successful and authoritative online encyclopedia created professionally. The market just won’t be there. As it stands, many treat Wikipedia.org as a first stop before searching elsewhere for what are perhaps more credible resources.

I’m not sure how to assuage the hurt that people may feel from any oncoming rush of online democracy, but I can guarantee that a stance against the flow of Web 2.0 will be wasted effort. Still, some are stuck in the old ways and will continue to try and stamp their vision of the way things should be onto the evolving freedoms and new realities of the Internet.

The Fall 2005 issue of Revenue Magazine, “The Performance Marketing Standard”, featured an interview with a marketing executive from OgilvyOne North America, an online advertising division of the traditional advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather. Throughout the interview the executive used industry jargon to liberally slather advertising platitudes in almost total disregard to the questions posed to her. In other words, she’s treating the Internet market the way she should a television audience. That’s so 1.0.

The reader can’t miss an unintended subtext entwined in her jibber jabber. In answering a question about why advertising agencies are slow in adapting to change brought by online advertising she asserts that agencies, Ogilvy in particular, have been, in fact, “leading the revolution” and need to push to understand their targets. I don’t blame her any more than I blame politicians whose job compels them to regularly make statements that make me wince. However her statement typifies just how the first push, or Web 1.0, did not storm the castle of Internet success.

In TV or radio you make the push and attack your target. In Web 1.0 advertising agencies tried to identify and push their ads onto their targets. They studied user behavior and plotted to meet them there with ‘effective’ advertising. What constituted ‘effective’ were non-contextual pop-ups and banners. The aggressive poppers of Web 1.0 did not translate into quality CTRs; rather they bred angry surfers. To be blunt, this method failed then and still does. A Web 2.0 mindset understands that we accommodate our “target” to the extent that our target lets us. The user finds the advertiser and the smart advertiser will be ready. It’s simple, it’s search.

ICMediaDirect.com started up as a fully online advertising agency. Like any online advertising agency, we match our efforts to the Internet user’s whim. In deference to the reality of Web 2.0, we concede that the Internet user, that voice of the public, is in fact the driver of “the revolution”. The rules are different here. Our dialogue with clients doesn’t consist of conspiring to convince the public of anything. Our job, in full accordance with a Web 2.0 flow, is to get advertisers as appealing and available to web searchers as possible.

Here, ‘going with the flow’ means understanding that the searcher, or internet user, is steering the boat. We do not seek to attack them with ads. Instead, we prepare the advertiser for the user. And, thankfully, the Web 2.0 searcher is ready for e-commerce in a way those on Web 1.0 never were. The proof: SEM and SEO works.

Free content can still be free. The Internet is, more than anything, a mass network of individuals who have an easier and easier go of it in skirting the traditional keepers of the gate. The trick is to get users to come to you when they are ready to do so, on their terms. That’s exactly what we do best. For better or worse, Web 2.0 is here to stay. The wise will find out how to participate. For the rest, there are VCRs.