The Ongoing Struggle of Free vs. Fee

Does information really want to be free? If so, how can traditional information publishers and aggregators deal with shifting value propositions and revenue models of premium content and survive in the era of free web content?

A special report from the ASIDIC Fall Meeting, September 10-12, Newport Beach, CA.

With over a hundred years in the information services business, the Association of Information and Dissemination Centers ( organization faces multiple challenges as its members struggle to adapt traditional information retrieval methods and legacy systems to the new business models arising with emerging technology.

Over the course of the two-day conference, an attendee mentioned that they thought the fear of change in the industry came from Stewart Brand’s often-quoted statement “information wants to be free.” Understandably, such a statement would be intimidating to a long established industry that has based its entire existence on the model of selling information.

This fear isn’t paranoid: New business and revenue models based on new distribution methodology are arising almost daily. The value proposition has been shifted from information itself to the organization, credibility and trust of information. Information itself may want to be free—but an overabundance of free information is causing a shift in the value proposition associated with content. Content is king, but it seems that everyone is now a newly crowned monarch. It is no longer valuable to be a king—value now comes from organizing, and reviewing which content is most credible, has the least bias, and offers the most value to its’ specifically targeted user segment. These fundamentals will be critical to the new monetization of content.

It is often difficult to see where the value in the information is, and just how much of the information should be free, and how a business can still be successful if the information is given away. In very much the same way the music industry faced crisis with digital transfer of music, the premium content industry is facing crisis (both opportunity and problems) with the way that content and information is monetized.

Chasing the long tail

The “long tail” concept, while becoming the most overused buzzword of the online industry, actually has a significant place in the traditional information industry. Because the inventory of information and electronic content is nearly limitless, the long tail has an even stronger significance. Information discovery and accessibility is the key to producing a long tail.

To further the argument for improved information discovery, Katherine Mossman (Library Journal, July 2006) points out that in the long tail model librarians and libraries play a key role:

    • Libraries act as almost limitless inventory collections


    • Librarians act as search filters


    • Collection management by librarians is a constant work in progress


    • Statistics (usage) is a critical factor


  • Institutions must be able to measure the ROI on content purchases and continue to make the right choices for their constituents

The global information marketplace is able to quickly reach a global audience (there are more than 65,000 publishers worldwide) and many still generate “hits” or “best sellers” which drive and subsidize the traditional publishing world, but this model is changing.

Federated search vs. meta search tools

“Federated search” is an expansion of what web searchers know as “meta search,” according to Peter Noerr, CTO of Muse Global. Noerr said that federated searching is an exciting growth area and it is moving front and center in almost every search tool around, offering immense coverage and strong results refinement.

Providing access to federated search tools provides authoritative content from reliable sources, but it can be daunting, and time consuming for users to search dozens of databases, especially since each requires a different syntax and offers different interfaces. Jill Konieczko, Library Director of US News & World Report, said, “consequently, we don’t always see the usage we need to ensure appropriate return on our (significant) investments. Employing a federated search helps us to achieve other objectives.”

Paul Levy, CEO of Deep Vertical, added that “the boundaries of federated search, vertical search, news search and standard web search are merging. The industry needs to focus on improving the users front-end toolset to better manage the vast depth of information that the search industry has created.”

This article will be continued in tomorrow’s SearchDay.

Elisabeth Osmeloski oversees the day-to-day operations of the Search Engine Watch site in her role as Managing Editor, and Todd Malicoat is an internet marketing consultant for

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