Following On-Line Conversations is Hard Work!

    October 6, 2005

“Markets are conversations” That phrase comes from the Cluetrain Manifesto and appears frequently in blog postings and comments.

The implication is that companies need to get involved in “the conversation” happening about them and their products or services.

In the years I’ve been reading blogs, I’ve heard sentiments like that over and over. While true, they are often not practical or “actionable” in corporate-speak. I’m starting to think of these notions as “blogger’s wisdom” because so many bloggers assume that they’re true, the implications are obvious, and the path into the future is a clear one.

I’m here to tell you that despite this blogger’s wisdom, we’re nowhere close to where we ought to be. Several years into this whole blogging thing, the technology and tools designed to facilitate this global conversation all suck.

Let’s see how!

It turns out that “getting involved” (i.e., posting a comment) is the easy part. Finding and subsequent monitoring of the conversations is far from easy. This manifests itself in three phases of the process that I’ll look at here in a top down fashion.

Broad Searches

To get a global sense of what people are saying about you, you can subscribe to a search on Technorati, Google Blog Search, Feedster, PubSub, IceRocket, etc. But what keywords do you choose? You’re subscribing to specific terms, not concepts. So if you choose the wrong ones, you end up with too much irrelevant info (and overload) or you miss important posts. This is easy for “yahoo” but harder for “windows” or “iraq.”

This assumes that the services you’re using have comprehensive and fresh indexes. I don’t believe that any of them have both. And that means you have to subscribe to all of them, wade thru the duplicates and spam, and identify those that are worth of actually clicking thru to read. That’s real work. Try it sometime.

Aggregators do a poor job of making this easy. The blog search “verticals” aren’t helpful either. They suffer from any number of real or perceived problems: slow and unstable (Technorati), incomplete (Google), contain lame advertising (Feedster), or are impossible for normal people to understand (PubSub).

Subscribing to Topical Blogs

If you work at Apple Computer, you’d obviously want to subscribe to as many of the Apple related blogs that you can find-the ones that write about Apple on a regular basis. But you need to find them (see previous phase). Once you do, you need to read them regularly. You’ll probably start by bookmarking them and trying to remember to read them all on a daily basis. In doing so, you also have to remember what’s new and what’s not.

Eventually you’ll have more than 20 or 30, get yourself an aggregator, and have to figure out that clicking on that stupid orange icon doesn’t do anything useful. Luckily RSS auto-discovery seems to be far more common that it was a few years ago. But the subscription model is still fundamentally broken. If the “Add to My Yahoo!” button didn’t exist, I’m sure tens of thousands of people wouldn’t have a way to track their favorite sites.

Most aggregators make it so easy to subscribe (once you figure out how) that self-inflicted overload soon follows. You find yourself spending far too much time trying to “unbold” the folders of news on your desktop. The aggregator does little to help manage the flow of information, show you what really matters to you, and hide the stuff that’s not important.

Comment Tracking

It took me a while to figure this out, but every aggregator I’ve seen has completely fails to make it easy to stay engaged in a discussion taking place in comments on one or more blog posts. I typically comment on a blog post and never remember to go back to see if anyone else commented on what I said. That’s not much of a “conversation,” is it?

Blogginng software isn’t very helpful in this respect either. Few blogs offers RSS feeds for the comments on a given post. And even if they do, aggregators don’t make it easy to manage those subscriptions (like automatically unsubscribing from them when they conversation dies off). Some blogs offer the option of getting an email alert when someone posts a comment on a discussion you’re interested in. But they don’t handle trackback or pingback “comments” at all, so you’re not seeing the whole conversation.

So comment tracking/monitoring ends up as a very manual process full of repeat visits, which means it’s very, very hard to scale.


The promise of the blogosphere is a loosely connected global network of conversations with an incredibly low barrier to entry. The reality is that the tools are still far too immature for the current scale of this growing network. Worse yet, most aggregators are designed to mimic e-mail or usenet news clients rather than embracing the highly connected nature of blog posts and comments, not the mention the typically short “decay” periods associated with the discussion around most posts.

What should we do?

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Jeremy Zawodny is the author of the popular Jeremy Zawodny’s blog. Jeremy is part of the Yahoo search team and frequently posts in the Yahoo! Search blog as well.

Visit Jeremy’s blog: Jeremy Zawodny’s blog.