How do you out Google the Google?

How are we going to be better than Google, a colleague of mine asked.

It’s an honest question, but one that I'd say nobody has any idea how to answer. Nobody I know can say "this is how to do it on the Internet” any more than “this is how to do it against Google.”

Sure, people have been successful. But there’s no tried and true method. Only books about tried and true methods. And most of them are shite.

It’s a big monster, this commercial information age, swallowing everything that matters to them.

Being better than Google? You can't out Google Google. You have to go  niche. Deep niche. That means not returning the most results, but the best hits. It means, in our sense, returning things we can provide more context to our users. Only problem is, I am not supposed to use the word context. That’s from my colleagues, not from Google (who don't know we exist).

Nobody really understands what you mean by context, my colleagues tell me, continuing: We only nod in agreement because you say it at every meeting. Context to me is the legend of a map, answering the "so what?" question, or the "why is this important?" question.

David Weinberger, in his work on networked information, points out that links take readers forward; pushing the idea you're currently reading about forward, pushing your curiosity forward. Paper books and journals had no method to create this action; if you wanted to follow a writer's argument, you had to go back to the stacks and find the books/journals cited yourself.

I am taking this argument somewhat out of context (that word!) for my point, but here's a different take: The internet and its network gives us information, the raw material in the process that forges meaning.  This is a nice piece on the hierarchy of meaning from Aeon Magazine by Dougald Hine.

Information is perhaps the rawest material in the process out of which we arrive at meaning: an undifferentiated stream of sense and nonsense in which we go fishing for facts. But the journey from information to meaning involves more than simply filtering the signal from the noise. It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed. In most human societies, there have been specialists in this skill, yet it can never be the monopoly of experts, for it is also a very basic, deeply human activity, essential to our survival. If boredom has become a sickness in modern societies, this is because the knack of finding meaning is harder to come by.

Knowledge, then, is higher level stuff, the context added to information:

Knowledge has a point when we start to find and make connections, to weave stories out of it, stories through which we make sense of the world and our place within it. It is the difference between memorising the bus timetable for a city you will never visit, and using that timetable to explore a city in which you have just arrived. When we follow the connections – when we allow the experience of knowing to take us somewhere, accepting the risk that we will be changed along the way – knowledge can give rise to meaning.

For content aggregators, like where I work, it’s a tight-rope walk providing information to users or providing context.

People don’t want too much of a heavy hand. Most feel that it smacks of the old way of doing things. The "go get the book off the shelf" way of doing things. Even if you're old enough to never have gotten a book from a shelf to find information, it feels old. Musty and grimy.

Answering the "so what?" question for people feels too much of a heavy hand. It can get clunky. Too AOL. And you never know how much context to provide. Or, what kind.

The map legend idea works kind of well, because we're thinking of information as a map where disciplines and subjects take up space. I deal with health systems, so we can say training and educating health workers goes here while managing health workers and providing incentives to them is over there. (Not the best example, I know.)

But is this physical-ness the best way? It feels right, now. But we'll have to see.

The bottom line is we need to find how our little digital library is going to keep users coming back after they've stumbled upon us from a Google search. The big search companies -- and there are a few more that just the G- -- eat guys like us for lunch. Even if were real niche.

But users? Users are even worse. They don't have the time nor the patience for cluttering up their information with knowledge.

Photo: Can hierarchy and sharing co-exist? (high res) by