Of Google, Amazon and Weblogs: reputation management evolves
By David Walker (Google profile)
"How do you sort out the good stuff on the Web?" People have been asking this ever since the Web specification escaped from its home in a Swiss nuclear research lab. Most Web professionals see it as a pointless question: they know what they trust. But only when I tried to answer this question for a friend recently did I realise how the answer has continued to change.
The standard answer to the "good stuff" question used to be: "Go to a directory". Yahoo, LookSmart and others used paid editors to build lists of the Web's best sites. But that model could't deliver quality and still remain economically viable. While Yahoo and its ilk turned to the business of being "portals", the Web waited for other solutions.
The first of those solutions came from an unexpected direction. Individual sites such as Amazon, Epinions and eBay developed systems to let users post reviews or items for sale, and let other users pass judgement on the quality of the people who'd done the posting. Rather than paying money, they paid for content and users rankings with the currency of user recognition, respect and goodwill. They created systems for giving their users reputations. It may not be coincidence that Amazon, Epinions and eBay all appear at least capable of surviving the dot-com collapse.
Other rating services aim at pages and sites, rather than at the users of a single service like Amazon or eBay. The best of them is the Google search engine, not just a new search engine but a new type of search engine, clearly superior to most others. Previous search engines analysed the content of pages. Google ranks pages by asking how many other pages link to them. In short, it finds out what other Web authors think of those pages.
Jakob Nielsen appears to have coined the term "reputation manager" in early 1998 to describe systems that let users advise other users on site content. Nielsen is often categorised as a "usability expert", since usability testing brought him to prominence, but he also analyses the evolution of the Web medium with unusual clarity. Nielsen noted in his 1998 article that most Web site creators of the time sought brand recognition, through everything from good URLs to Super Bowl ads. But he predicted that reputation management would help users find the material on smaller sites with unknown brands. In a second article a year later he noted the emergence of Amazon, Epinions, eBay and Google.
Nielsen's ideas on usability have taken root over the past six years. His ideas on reputation management have been paid less attention. But new reputation management tools continue to evolve.
While Google, Epinions, Amazon and eBay have asked large numbers of people to judge reputations, another reputation tool is approaching the problem from the other direction. Blogging software has allowed individuals to publish their own lists of sites, complete with commentaries. Weblogs' users don't vote within the site; they vote by choosing the site as a reliable source of guidance. In effect, they say to the site's author: "you make the choices I'd make if I had time". The Webloggers become the makers and breakers of reputations within their (usually narrow) areas of interest. And the mass of Weblogs becomes another reputation management system. Search tools like Daypop even lets you search specific Weblogs that track current events, making Daypop founder Dan Chan a sort of meta-reputation-maker.
Reputation management's growth can continue for a long time yet. The Web is far from finished with the task of sorting the good stuff from the bad.