Micro-Context: Moving Beyond Search
Engines to Content-Enabled Publishing Services
25 September 2006
While many publishers focus on search engines to get their
content in the most valuable context possible that's not
where issues of context begin and end for online content. A
new generation of micro-context services are bringing
valuable content sources down to the level of words and
phrases in destination content. These new and evolving
services enable publishers to expose their own content and
content from high-quality content partners to give
audiences a high-value experience whenever they decide to
shift their focus. Think of every bit of content in your
services as the potential starting point for an enhanced
relationship that can keep audiences coming back for more.
If you read our postings with
any regularity you know that we're big on context as a key
factor in making content more valuable. Search engine portals,
and online ad networks get the lion's share of attention in
providing valuable context, but they are hardly the end of the
story for providing contextual content. To date many of these
contextual services have focused on navigation aids that appear
on a given page of context such as categories, taxonomies or
context-specific categories or "related" links to provide
useful additional content based on an entire page's content.
But as seen in this week's introduction of
"One-Click Answers" service for
The New York
earlier coverage) context at the page level is getting a
lot more specific these days.
The Answers.com feature allows a user to get access to NYT-branded
reference content from Answers.com just by pointing at any word
or phrase in a news article and ALT-clicking their way to a
popup window. Nothing new in and of itself, mind you:
Answers.com has had this capability available via download from
their own site for over a year and search engines such as
Google have had right-clicking to search results available on a
similar basis for a long time. But services such as the
Answers.com feature on the NYT site begin to get audiences more
used to context that leads to high-quality content sources
being available anywhere on any page - without requiring a
specific software download or having to plod through search
We saw similar micro-context capabilities in the
contextual link service at last week's ASIDIC conference.
Infocious provides a pop-up box when one hovers over a link on
a page to provide a user both contextual search results from
the Web and content that could be made available from other
services - including a publisher's own content. It's a great
idea for providing your users content options that are in your
own best interest at the point at which they're getting ready
to leave for other destinations, combining the best attributes
of links and stickiness in the same feature.
With limited page "real estate" that's actually read by
audiences always at the ready to skip along to the next service
maximizing services in micro-contexts that work off of the
content itself is a very important aspect of content design.
Every word, graphic or multimedia presentation can become a
service in and of itself, capitalizing on contextual interest
that may be far more narrow or broad than any editorial staff
can envision in advance of setting up a page design.
This type of micro-contextual content increases the need to
consider at a very detailed level how content is formatted in a
Microformats, for example, can be embedded in content pages
to allow social networks, people and organization profiles,
licenses, tags and categories to be keyed off of very small
pieces of a Web or XML page's content (see
Robin Good's coverage), a benefit to search engines as well
as to users benefiting from richer content and indexing built
How can microcontext-enabled content be designed to benefit
your own content services? Here are a few key factors to keep
in mind when deciding how to tool up on micro-context services:
- Try to bring audiences to your preferred micro-context
content sources in a natural way. For years publishers
have injected their articles with special links to stock
quotations and references with their own special brew of
accelerated linking capabilities. These are good
micro-context services in their own right, but oftentimes
their non-standard looks and functions can confuse users as
much as they help them. Today's micro-context services
emphasize seamless integration that doesn't require any
guesswork as to how to take advantage of enhanced content
services. Bring more context to each piece of content, yes -
but try to have features that feel completely intuitive and
that conform as much as possible to evolving industry
standards. Let "stickiness" feel like a good thing instead of
something that you want to wash off as soon as possible.
- Choose high-quality content sources for micro-contexts
that bring predictable benefits. Exposing
deeper context has value in and of itself but if the
click-through brings the user to "pretty good" content it's
less likely to be seen as a valuable alternative to search
engines. Integrating high-value or premium content sources
and other content from your core services that can benefit
from micro-contexts should be your first priority. Remember,
though, that quality is in the eyes of your audience. Social
media content that helps users to leverage their personal
relationships or favorite feeds and bookmarks may be at least
as valuable as traditional content databases under your own
wing. Be ready to think carefully about a wide range of
internal and external content partners that can give the
"bang" that micro-context content promises to deliver.
- Don't reinvent your page-level context tools.
There's still important value to be gained from providing
higher-level tools such as taxonomies, clustering and
"related links" services in a given page of content: users
expect these tools and see them as a strong plus.
Micro-context content cannot replace these but will
complement them - and may even be able to leverage their
strengths to provide the right content in a micro-context.
But when your audience is ready to shift their focus you want
to provide as much value as possible whenever they're ready
to do so - word by word, image by image, clip by clip.
While micro-context cannot be a panacea for an inferior core
content service these enhanced capabilities can provide high
value to everyday editorial output that will require a minimum
of investment and development and high levels of payback.
Instead of thinking of search engines as appliances that users
"go to," think of every item of content that you present to an
audience as the potential starting point for new investigations
that can enhance the value of your service to that audience.
How much value? We hope to demonstrate some of these
capabilities to you in our own content in the months ahead so
that you can judge for yourself.
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