What can online publishers learn from the videogames industry?

The 1980s are considered a golden age of videogames; well known and beloved characters like Super Mario, Donkey Kong and Pac Man all made their debuts in arcades during this decade. In these years the most popular game style was that of the simple 2D platformer: players would control a flat character moving in two dimensional space. The object of these games was simple - to navigate the character to the finish line while collecting as many resources as possible.

This all started to change in 1996: with the release of Super Mario 64 we saw a paradigm shift which still holds to this day. Due to exponential growth in processing power, game designers were able to quite literally add another dimension to their games. Titles like Skyrim and Fallout 4 have taken this further, bringing new gameplay freedom to players, allowing them to ‘choose their own adventure’.

Gamers are no longer restricted to collecting coins as the only possible activity; they don’t even have to complete the main quest. The ‘sandbox’ game genre, which marries different game styles such as combat, resource management, exploration and city building, has become incredibly popular. In these titles, users are not ‘stuck on rails’ moving through a static world on a specific path; instead, they’re left free to engage with whatever aspects of the game appeal most to them.

1980s gamers and today’s content consumers have something in common. Today’s readers have little control over how they move through the content they’re engaging with: instead they have to contend with the ways the publisher has divided up the content. If, for example, I’m reading an article on a particular politician and I want to find out who had the job before her, I’d have to look that up separately, or just Google it. I’d have to put thought into how to phrase my question to the system in order to get the correct answer. This is not an intuitive way of managing content. This is bad news for content publishers considering online readers are more than happy to vote with their feet.

BBC Sport understood this problem and, by leveraging semantic technologies on its World Cup website, has overcome it. If I’m reading about the goalkeeper for the Brazil team and want to find out more, I simply click the link which will take me to his stats and history. From there I’m linked to a previous team he played on, I can follow links to players from that team, and from there I can move along links to other topics that interest me. The key here is choice: my reading is not limited by how the content is packaged by the publisher. I’m allowed to follow my interest wherever it takes me within the content on the website.

There is advanced technology under the hood which is allowing this to happen. In order to provide readers with choice, content managers must implement ‘deep interlinking’ of individual pieces of content. There are a wide range of semantic technologies available which allow computer systems to more fully “understand” the meaning behind text, identify entities based on their grammatical relationships to one and other (such as a football player’s relationship to his manager), isolating and inferring links between these separate entities and saving those links in databases for use later.

Tim Berners-Lee revolutionised the Internet by creating a language for interlinking pages. What we’re seeing with semantic technology is a logical progression: now the linkages are happening on a finer scale, between individual pieces of content rather than pages as a whole.

Just as W3C formed to standardise HTML in the mid-1990s, schema.org has been sponsored by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Yandex to popularise new standards for structuring data on a semantic web. Just as HTML features markup tags for signifying things like images, schema.org’s Microdata markup also includes tags for signifying a person, their gender and relationships to others. The structures to enable content providers to give choice to their readers are there. Soon readers will no longer be stuck in a metaphorical Pac Man maze, but will be able to move around on their own, and choose their own path.

The adoption of these technologies is growing. Companies like Google and Facebook have been using home-grown versions of this technology for years, and Ontotext works with publishers like the BBC, the Financial Times and the Press Association. These technologies have a real business benefit: by granting content managers a more agile and nuanced view of their assets, they are empowered to create new revenue streams by packaging their content in new ways and reselling it. In the coming years more and more online content managers will come to see it as a vital tool in their arsenal for maintaining user engagement on their sites.

Dr Jarred McGinnis, UK managing consultant, Ontotext

Image Credit: Yuriy Boyko/Shutterstock