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This chapter is from the book

Capturing Social- and Rich-Media Opportunities

Print habits die hard. Chief among them is the habit of wanting to control the conversation. When you write for print, it's your tale and you control the telling—you control how the reader consumes the information. But when you write for the Web, the reader controls the pace and flow of information. Trying to control it is a surefire way to get users to bounce off your pages. The best you can do is to give users options they will want to choose. Part of gaining their trust to choose your content options—to click your links—is making it clear that it's their choice. Part of this is demonstrating that your content is not isolated, that it doesn't claim to have all the answers, and that it is but a small part of a bigger conversation.

The Web is an evolving medium, and users' expectations evolve with it. At this time, the fastest growing practice on the Web is sometimes called social media. Loosely defined, it is a set of practices that engage Web users to participate in the conversation rather than merely consume static information. These practices include blogs, wikis, forums, persona sites such as Facebook, microblogging sites such as Twitter, and the like. Social media is rapidly evolving to include graphics and video sharing and sophisticated syndication.

Nowhere is the Web more distinct from print publishing than in social media contexts. Users control the flow of information as they navigate through static Web pages; but they actually contribute to information in social media contexts. Here, their control of the information is complete. In extreme cases, users who make frequent comments on a blog are as important to the blog's success as its author. And a blog is not much more than an online opinion column if no one comments on its entries.

As the Web becomes more of a collaborative medium—more of a space for symposiums rather than lectures—users' expectations for the whole Web change. Even publishers of static Web content need to adjust their practices to engage users in conversations. Whether your site explicitly enables users to comment on its content or not, users expect it to. Social media has accelerated the need to give users more control over their information paths, even if your content is not intended to be shared and commented on.

For example, at one time IBM had a number of Web producers who preferred to get permission to republish content from other sources on their sites, rather than to link directly to the sources of that information. Fortunately, across the industry, this practice has long ago become a distant memory of how things used to be done in Web publishing. That memory is all that remains of writing habits that stem from print: "Let's keep users on our site. Let's not let them leave." This attitude is self defeating on the Web. You lose users' trust when you try to control their experiences; and you lose potential PageRank, as well.

Because page rankings are a large part of Google's PageRank (and of Bing's similar algorithm) and are determined by how a community "votes" on the credibility of content, search is a social medium. Not surprisingly, improving your standing in the community by engaging users in social media contexts is a very effective way to gain credibility and PageRank. If you encourage users to pass your links, podcasts, and videos around to their friends, the PageRank for the pages on which those assets are accessed will grow virally. Since users expect this pass-along content to be ever more visual, search effectiveness is not just about text anymore. It is crucially about rich media as well.

The irony is that the more control you give users, the more they will want to visit your site. The more open you are in your reciprocal linking relationships to and from rich media on other sites, the more users will treat your site as a hub of authority and will keep coming back to hang out and explore new paths through your content. Later on, we will demonstrate in more detail how to take advantage of the social attitudes and habits of Web users.

This letting go of control of your information is a necessary, though sometimes painful, cultural shift in Web content practices. Because this shift is so necessary and fundamental to successful Web content efforts, we believe it deserves a chapter all its own.

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