What is Web 2.0 really?

Since the advent of the Internet, the English language has gained hundreds of new words and created many new definitions to existing words. Today a person no longer needs an ocean and waves to surf and a browser is no longer someone who aimlessly wanders around a shopping mall. New words and new meanings continue to evolve, for example, if you said you had “Googled” someone just three years ago you would have had a lot of explaining to do.
The problem with this rapidly expanding landscape of new words and meanings is the resulting loss of communication. Most of us have heard of Web 2.0 but at least 80% of the population has no real definition of what it is. Web 2.0 is less about technology and more about how we use the internet. Like the English language, the way we use the Internet has also evolved over the past 15 years. Up until about 2003, the Internet was a very siloed (another new word used to describe a Web site or business that is an island, with marginal interaction with other businesses or Web sites) place. Web sites stood alone with an occasional link to the rest of the world. The only Web sites that offered any amount of links to the Internet at large were directories and search engines, which functioned like the yellow pages. To understand this evolution, it helps to think of the Internet in terms of the brick and mortar retail evolution, since both have evolved along the same lines.
Traveling across the vast open spaces of the United States in 1850, your shopping experience in every town from New York to San Francisco would be the same, the only difference being quantity and selection. In every town, you would walk down a wooden boardwalk and visit each store independently. This was also true when purchasing food. You would have to visit the butcher for meats, the green grocer for produce and… you get the idea. This was akin to the online surfing experience in 1993. Then along came the variety store of the 1930’s and the eventual invention of the shopping mall. This evolution (like the evolution of the Internet) was based upon convenience, price, ease of use, and access. For the Internet, this was the era during the mid to late 90’s where a funny company called Yahoo shocked Wall Street and the fabric of the World Wide Web wrapped the globe. Web sites were still siloed but they were all connected, much like the stores in a shopping mall. Then, some 58 years after 1930, Sam Walton had a monstrous idea, the super center.
The super center has been so successful it has almost achieved a religious status. I actually have a good friend who speaks of going to Wal-Mart as “going to church.” Frightening! This era of the Internet is the online experience that we all know and love. Super sites and super networks offer us cheap stuff and it all arrives at our door within days or hours (there was a company in the 90’s called Cosmo that would even deliver products within 30 minutes in larger U.S. cities). A very interesting and perhaps sobering note about our little history lesson here, is the time span. In the offline world, the evolution from the small specialty store to the super center took approximately 188 years (looking at modern retail history from about 1800 to 1988). The online world only took 15 years to cover the same distance. This means the Internet has evolved about 12 times faster. The implications of that statistic for your online business (no matter how you look at it) mean you have to move quickly and stay alert.

Web 2.0 describes the online evolution beyond where off line retailing has been.
After about 2003 is where the online evolution surpassed off line retail evolution with the help of a little Web site called My Space. My Space was actually started in 1999 but evolved to its current state and loyal following a few years later. In 2006, they added their 100 millionth user and today boast over 300 million users. Following My Space’s lead, many other copycat sites have come on the scene confirming one thing, the social network is powerful, extremely lucrative, and here to stay. In a nutshell, Web 2.0 is all about social networks and how we humans have formed our societies for thousands of years.
It’s hard to image off line retail evolution beyond the super center, but that’s because we currently shop in one. Web 2.0 isn’t the super center exactly however; it goes a step beyond it (which is why the lines cross in the graph above). Imagine a super center that has a group of actual consumers and industry experts surrounding every product (sku) in the store –there ready to give you user experiences, manufacture information, official reports, where to find the lowest price and the best service, and all the urban legends and rumors that surround every product. If you can get your head around that, you are beginning to understand what Web 2.0 is all about and how important it is that your product information is in a place and format that enables it to become part of the social fabric of the world.
The future of Web 2.0 and the implications it will have on business isn’t crystal clear but we can be certain it will change the status quo online and that we will also have a few new words to learn. One such term gaining momentum out there is the acronym SMO, which stands for Social Marketing Optimization. SMO is similar to SEO (search engine optimization), which is the strategy of getting high organic rankings in search engines. SMO is about making your site flexible enough to be infiltrated and accessed by many different social networks and serving your marketing messages in such a way that they will be welcomed by your target audience and served to them through the right social vehicle so that they will be valued and trusted.
I believe one more historical analogy is warranted. Route 66 was an old highway built in 1926 in the U.S. that winded its way from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California. Unlike modern freeway systems, Route 66 often became Main Street in many small towns complete with stop signs and traffic signals. When the modern freeway systems became the standard, many small towns that were once connected by Route 66 and other like highways were literally cut off from the world. The Disney/Pixar movie Cars follows this true to life situation of many small towns in the U.S. and Europe after the introduction of the modern freeway.
Web 2.0 introduces a similar situation for online businesses. The social networks of the world speed word-of-mouth advertising faster than ever before. In addition, marketers can get their messages distributed to their target markets faster and cheaper than ever before. Deciding not to participate in this global conversation could cut you off from your marketing audience and the world at large.
I expect to see many new applications, online services, and strategies evolve over the next 3 years that will help businesses capitalize on the numerous and ever-expanding global social networks. But to wait for these new tools before making your Web 2.0 move could cost you, and there are plenty of history lessons about that.

What is Web 2.0 really? (part 2) – “How can I prepare and capitalize on Web 2.0?”

About the author
Greg Meyers is an Internet veteran of 16 years and an e-marketing expert. Greg is currently the Director of Marketing at WestHost and has consulted for such clients as Microsoft, Novell, McAfee, General Motors, HP, Volkswagen, 3M, United Health Care, and others. Greg currently lives in the Cache Valley (Northern Utah, USA) area with is wife and four children.