The subjective web is the web we create for ourselves through customisation and personalisation. But is it all good news for marketers?

With Web 2.0, we took an active role in the digital experience by publishing and posting our own content online. Marketers saw this as something ‘new’ and ‘extra’ and, in one sense, it was. 

However, human beings’ cognitive resources are finite. As more sites, social networks, channels, apps and devices enter the mix, audience attention is diffused and diluted. Across the media landscape as a whole, the big picture is fragmentation rather than augmentation. 

The next stage of digital evolution is to harness this overwhelming cascade of digital content and make it coherent and relevant. And the big players have already started to do just that. 

The subjective web 

Of course, we’ve always actively shaped our online experience by searching the web and choosing which sites to visit. But now personalisation is moving to a new level. 

Increasingly, we find our content through social media, following the recommendations of people in our networks. Merchants and publishers have responded by establishing presences in the channels we like to use, in some cases, making them their primary digital touchpoint. 

Since 2009, Google has been personalising search results based on location and web history. As a result, different users may see different results for the same search term. 

And we’re seeing more and more automatically targeted content that’s tailored to our interests and preferences, as expressed through our online behaviour. 

Overall, there’s a clear trend for digital content to be selected, filtered and refined through the lens of our own individuality. We might call this the subjective web: the unique digital world we each create for ourselves. 

Searching questions

Is this progress? Not everyone thinks so. 

A new book by Eli Pariser entitled The Filter Bubble warns that Google’s personalisation is about more than targeted advertising, it can also affect our worldview by filtering the news and opinion we read. 

As Pariser notes, biased media are nothing new, but this is different because it’s invisible, involuntary and unique to each user. When we search, we think we’re looking at what’s ‘out there’, using the same impartial, transparent channel as everyone else. In fact, we’re looking at our own reflections. 

Personally, I think such concerns are a little alarmist. We all know where to go for balanced news coverage. We can easily refine our searches, or even use another search engine. And social networks will always circumvent censorship. 

However, Google could do more to clarify the nature of the data it now offers. For example, by stating ‘here are your results for xxx’. 

Closed circles

Another concern is over the nature of the news received via social media. Mark Zuckerberg now boasts that Facebook is the biggest source of news in the world, prompting Pariser to question whether people are getting the full picture. 

Given the youth of Facebook’s core base, we have to consider what kind of news is being shared – is it about Assad or Gaga? – as well as how much news teenage users would otherwise consume.

And besides, once you start dictating what people should read, you quickly get into very deep water. 

However, there is a valid point here. Because we friend and follow those we agree with, the opinions, links and recommendations we see reflect our own views.

Psychologists call this ‘confirmation bias’: the tendency to focus on information that supports what we already think. If we rely on social channels for our news and comment, we’re unlikely to get a balanced view of the world. 

Brand break-in

So, where are the marketing opportunities in this changed landscape? 

Eli Pariser’s book speaks of Google, Facebook and their advertisers as though their interests were perfectly aligned, a single ‘commercial’ entity.

In fact, as readers will know, the reality is very different. Success for merchants may be ‘just’ a matter of ‘creating great content’ – but that’s not as simple as it sounds. In the subjective web, not all content is equal. 

Take natural search. As social signals are incorporated into search algorithms, established sites can use existing advantage to gain even more social approval, making it harder for challenger brands to break through, a problem I discussed in this post

Also, without objective rankings, managing an SEO campaign is going to be tough. You may think you rank, but who knows what your customer sees when they search?

Google Places is another example. For some searches, such as ‘restaurant’, Google decides to show locally focused results on page one – even if you don’t add a place name.

As an advertiser targeting distant customers, you’re at the mercy of Google’s decision to put you in a geographical ‘box’ or let you roam free. I dread the day Google makes ‘copywriter’ a local term, putting a barrier between me and my clients further afield. 

Moving to social, it’s easy to see how ‘closed’ networks, composed of people with similar backgrounds and views, would be tough for advertisers to penetrate. Who will start the dancing by sharing a product that the group might not like?

As I argued in this post, distress-purchase brands, by their nature, can’t generate social buzz even though the product adds real value. Meanwhile, ‘nice’ and ‘fun’ brands hog the digital limelight – regardless of whether they’re actually converting their social froth to sales. 

Back to basics

Legendary UK creative director Steve Harrison says the goal of advertising is ‘relevant abruption’, which he defines as ‘interrupting the prospect by drawing their attention to either the problem they are encountering or the solution you are offering them… [leading] them directly to the benefit they will enjoy after they’ve bought the product or service you’re selling.’ 

That hasn’t changed. Sooner or later, whatever the channel, you’ve got to pitch your benefits and ask for the sale. But the subjective web may make relevant abruption more and more difficult.

With digital experience customised around what is already known and liked, marketers may struggle to attract the attention they need to make a sale. 

For my part, I hope the subjective web will make killer creative ideas more important than ever. The compulsive focus on this week’s weapon of choice will fade, and marketers will ‘come home’ to the timeless principles of salesmanship. Either that, or in a few more years we’ll be longing for the good old days of banner ads…