Monday 2 March 2009

You're only as good as the questions you ask.

The problem
After a very successfull fancy dress party this weekend, I'm faced with the problem that some pictures of me (that readers of this blog may find very amusing) are possibly out of my control and headed for various friends' websites very soon. While I'm concerned about being found when people are searching for me on the net, I'm also trying to make sure they find my professional online persona and not so much the private stuff.

The answer
Given that I'm not really all that interesting, I'm assuming that whoever searches for me will have little patience. My strategy so far is not, as you may think, to track and hunt down my friends who publish their pictures of me online, but rather to make sure that for anyone who tries to find me they will very easily end up here on this site, for instance. SEO is hardly my strongest skill, but some Adwords, a bit of cross referencing and linking to my blog, Twitter and Linkedin pretty much keeps me high enough up on the search result lists that I basically hide all the other stuff someone else might publish that's tagged with my name hidden deep in the haystack.

The question
So all is safe and good if you Google me from my point of view. But how do I really know what you searched for before ending up here? And if I don't know what people search for, how do I optimize for that? And aren't there thousands of people just like me out there, so that if you're in fact not really looking for those funny pictures of me but generally searching for a good interactive marketer, how do you actually find the right one for you?

Abundance of information, just as much as lack thereof, calls for good detectives, and if there is one thing the information society has a lot of it is indeed answers to every possible question you could think of. And as more and more people and companies start using the internet to express themselves, even the most miniscule subject matter has thousands of answers.

A flooded market
In this information overload where each answer is matched by an infinite number of others, even good answers quickly loose value. In our time it is not the answer that has the greatest value, but the good question.

The California based, Bangladeshi born artist Hasan Elahi quickly learned this when his name turned up on an FBI terror watch list. Being all but impossible to get off the list (or escape the FBI surveillance), he decided to turn his entire life into a publicly available timeline on his website For years, he's posted hourly pictures of his surroundings, GPS location and credit card transactions, making his life completely transparent to anyone trying to follow him, but at the same time giving Big Brother and endless job of searching through all his traces to find anything important.

Douglas Adams foresaw the problem of computers giving us answers that we don't know the questions to in "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", in which I probably don't have to remind you that the supercomputer Deep Thought takes seven and a half million years to compute the answer to the Ultimate Question. The answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42, but the question remains unknown, and the answer proves not to be very useful.

For every new media technology that pops up, and for each new communication device we are brought closer to a continually growing haystack of information. What do we use all these answers for, and how do we judge what is relevant or even true?

The party
I often get approached by businesses asking for advice on how to present information about them and their products online, and most have clearly defined ideas about what is important for them to broadcast to their online audience. Unfortunately, this approach rarely does much to impress their users.

Imagine you are at a party with a bunch of university professors and generally very smart people who know a lot of stuff. How would you behave in this context? Would boasting about everything you know, which may or may not add anything to the collected knowledge in the room, be the key to a successful evening? Or would you rather try to find out something clever from these other smart people at the party?

The internet is much like this; it is both a vast repository of information and a constant buzz of users asking questions and digging into it. If you do indeed provide some information that you'd like someone to find, what questions do your customers ask about your product to find this? And are you the one supplying the answers they actually read, or is someone else providing them? Finding the questions and knowing what to use the answer for is to me paramount to any activity online.

So for this party I went to this weekend, I need to figure out what questions I've left unanswered. Or just hope that what answers I provided there left so little to the imagination that they won't be looking for more of that...


  1. Veldig bra innlegg Sigurd. Bra tema godt fortalt...

  2. Hvilket spørsmål finner bildene?

  3. And so cunning!! Great insights and important QUESTIONS raised. Keep the words flooding. Entertaining as well. Thx!

  4. @Jarle, @Børge: thanks!

    @Alex: Hehe good question. In fact, I don't know, for reasons beyond what is pertinent to discuss here, but you're pointing out the problem quite clearly.

    For someone who wants the amusement of putting those pictures into the public domain, they would have to figure out how exactly to make them findable for someone like you. Or else they'd just be lost. Oh, what shame... I think not ;-)

  5. Good insights. Inspiring.
    I think that a persona brand must be just as holistic as any other. It's a matter of releasing the correct info in the correct context. Sounds easy, but so hard to deliver on.