According to a study recently released by Yahoo, UK internet users are suffering from information overload.
As reported by the Association of Online Publishers UK, the study, which is entitled “Return on Attention,” found that 70% of users “admitted to spending hours sifting through unwanted or irrelevant information.“
62% of the users surveyed even felt that online information overload was having “a detrimental impact on their lives.“
Yahoo, not surprisingly, looked at the study in the context of online marketing, noting that 79% of users want something in return for their “attention” to advertising.
Kristof Fahy, the VP of Marketing for Yahoo Europe, is quoted as stating:
“Successful marketers will develop innovative strategies to help people filter their already over stretched attention. It’s no longer a case of just getting your voice heard, it’s about having a dialogue with the individual while understanding and responding to their needs.”
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that successful marketing has always provided something of value to the recipient (that’s why it’s successful).
But I think it’s worthwhile to take a step back and look at the study in a broader context.
Why do we have information overload?
As I see it, information overload is largely the result of a philosophy adopted by many of today’s internet entrepreneurs.
That philosophy goes a little something like this – more information, more value.
From news aggregators to recommendation services to social networks, internet entrepreneurs have been busy turning the internet into an ocean of information.
The problem is that the ocean is far larger than required by the tiny fish that swim in it – the users.
Of course, these entrepreneurs tell us that their services are designed to help us find information that’s relevant and to filter out the information that isn’t. After all, we’re sharing “stuff” with our friends and family and that means it’s going to be relevant, right?
About as relevant as those annoying family newsletters Uncle Bartholomew sends out every holiday.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, entrepreneurs have also been busy creating incredible algorithms that help computers locate information that’s of interest to us.
In essence, we’re being told that today’s internet is getting more and more information-efficient.
In my opinion, however, our information efficiency is a lot like our energy efficiency. Many of the devices we use on a daily basis may individually be more “energy-efficient” but we’re using more of them and thus, consuming more energy than ever before.
And so it goes with information efficiency. In theory, we have great tools that should help us with information overload but we’re using so many of them that the amount of information we’re exposed to is still far greater than before.
While people like Robert Scoble may disagree, Yahoo’s study hints at what most of us in the “mainstream” have known for some time – the internet today looks more like an information junkyard than an information superhighway.
At the American Magazine Conference in October, Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated that the internet is at risk of becoming a “becoming a cesspool.”
He observed that “a world of disinformation…is the future” and noted that “the future of high quality journalism is a huge problem.” At the same time, he called for more investment in the type of high-quality content that is produced by magazines, noting that brands help individuals determine which sources of information to trust.
Schmidt’s comments are somewhat ironic, of course, since Google’s goal is to “organize the world’s information” and his company controls its own portfolio of largely useless content.
That said, even if he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, he’s correct.
The promise of the internet is being marginalized, as evidenced by the fact that 88% of the users in Yahoo’s study stated they are being forced to block out irrelevant messaging.
But where there’s a threat, there’s also an opportunity.
Just as many advertisers flee to quality to deal with today’s stark global economy, internet entrepreneurs should consider fleeing to quality as well.
Forget user-generated content, forget the “new media” notion that editorial structures are overrated and ditch the philosophy that more is better.
Instead, focus on providing high-value content, strive to employ editorial policies that help ensure every piece of information you supply is unique and relevant and adopt the mantra “less is more.”
The promise of the internet was never built on notions of democratic content production, free content or crowdsourcing; it was built on efficient global access to high-quality, useful information.
Just as the best freeways are the ones that aren’t plagued by bumper-to-bumper traffic, an information superhighway shouldn’t be marked by a nasty-looking traffic jam of information that might encourage you to stay home rather than go out.
If you’re working on the next Twitter, FriendFeed or Digg, you’re looking to serve the market of people who think that information overload makes individuals smarter. It doesn’t, as evidenced by how gullible these people are.
Yet if logic and empirical evidence won’t convince you that the real opportunity is in providing high-quality information, one need only compare the CPMs charged by branded online content properties to the CPMs charged by properties like MySpace to gauge where the value is at.
Solving the problem of information overload isn’t going to be easy. The cesspool that has been created isn’t going to be drained anytime soon (and realistically never will).
Yet if you’re looking to exploit the business opportunities offered by the internet, do consider that the opportunity lies outside of the cesspool.