Posted by: John Erickson | March 28, 2010

Long Tails and “Scaling Down” Linked Data Services

This post first appeared in November, 2009 in the Blogger version of this blog. It is updated here as I believe it introduces points relevant to Leigh Dodds’ recent post, Enhanced Descriptions: “Premium Linked Data.” I’ve freshened it as appropriate based on progress since November…

Chris Anderson’s newest book FREE: The Future of a Radical Price received some attention this summer, but I’ve actually been meditating on principles he laid out three years ago in his blog post, Scaling up is good. Scaling down is even better. In that post he marveled at Google et.al.’s ability to scale down, to run themselves efficiently enough to serve users who generate no revenue at all. Anderson’s principles are guidance on approaches to conducting business such that even if only a tiny percentage of ones visitors “convert” into paying customers, by ensuring this small percentage is of a very large number one can still achieve big-time profitability.

My goal with this post is to consider how these ideas might be applied to the domain of Linked Data, and specifically how they pertain to the provision of unique data that adds real value to the greater “Web of Data.”

In his blog Anderson gives us four keys to scaling down: Self-service, “Freemium” services, No-frills products and Crowdsourcing…

1. Self-service: give customers all the tools they need to manage their own accounts. It’s cheap, convenient, and they’ll thank you for it. Control is power, and the person who wants the work done is the one most motivated in seeing that it’s done properly.

“Self-service” applies to linked data services in oh-so-many ways! Self- service in this case is not as much about support (see “Crowdsourcing,” below) as it is about eliminating any and all intervention customers might need to customize or specialize how services perform for them. In principle, the goal should be to provide users with a flexible API and let them figure it out, with the support of their peers. Ensure that everything is doable from their side, and step out of the way.

Note #1 (29 Mar 2010): A great recent example of this is the OpenVocab Project, launched by Ian Davis of Talis. OpenVocab “enables anyone to participate in the creation of a open and shared RDF vocabulary. The project uses wiki principles to allow properties and classes to be created in the vocabulary.”

The (negative) corollary is this: if an organization must “baby sit” its customers by providing specialized services that require maintenance, then they own it and must eat the cost. If instead they allow specializations to be a user-side function, their users own it. But the users won’t be alone; they’ll have the support of their community!

2. “Freemium” services: As VC Fred Wilson puts it, “give your service away for free, possibly ad supported but maybe not, acquire a lot of customers very efficiently through word of mouth, referral networks, organic search marketing, etc, then offer premium priced value added services or an enhanced version of your service to your customer base.” Free scales down very nicely indeed.

There are any number of ways providers might apply this concept to the linked data world:

 Free Access   Premium Access 
 Restricted vocabulary of assertions   Full access, all assertions 
 Limited query rate   Unlimited query rate 
 Limited query extent   Unlimited query extent 
 Limited data   Unlimited data size 
 Read-only   Term upload capability 
 Narrow reuse rights   Broad reuse rights 
 Community support   Private/ dedicated support 
 …   … 

Note #2 (29 Mar 2010): In his recent post Enhanced Descriptions: “Premium Linked Data”, Leigh Dodds’ provides a great freemium/premium example: a base dataset provided for free, and an enhanced set provided at a premium and exposed via his proposed ov:enhancedDescription vocabulary term, which he defined in OpenVocab.

Note #3 (29 Mar 2010): Derek Gordon just pushed out a great piece, The Era Of APIs, that argues “APIs are at work reshaping the ways in which we understand search today, and will challenge our profession to stretch, grow and change significantly in the coming years.”

3. No-frills products: Some may come for the low cost, others for the simplicity. But increasingly consumers are sophisticated enough to know that they don’t need, or want to pay for premium brands and unnecessary features. It’s classic market segmentation, with most of the growth coming at the bottom.

In the linked data world, achieving “no frills” would seem easy because by definition it is only about the data! For linked data a “frill” is just added complexity that serves no purpose or detracts from the utility of the service. Avoid any temptation to gratuitously “add value” on behalf of customers, such as merging your core graph with others in an attempt to “make it easy” for them. Providers should also avoid “pruning” graphs, except in the case of automated filtering in order to differentiate between Freemium and Premium services.

Note #4 (29 Mar 2010): Providers should weigh this very carefully. It might well be that a “merged” graph truly is a value-added service to users, for which they are willing to pay a premium. My point is simply to avoid the gratuitous and respond to customer needs!

4. Crowdsourcing: From Amazon reviews to eBay listings, letting the customers do the work of building the service is the best way to expand a company far beyond what employees could do on their own.

By now it is not only obvious, but imperative that providers foster the development communities within and around their services. Usually communities are about evangelism, and this is certainly true for linked data providers, but increasingly service provides realize well-groomed communities can radically reduce their service costs.

Linked data providers should commit themselves to a minimum of direct support and invest in fostering an active community around their service. Every provider should have a means for members of their community to support each other. Every provider should leverage this community to demonstrate to potential adopters the richness of the support and the inherent value of their dataset.

Finally: In a thought-provoking post Linked Data and the Enterprise: A Two-way Street Paul Miller reminds the skeptical enterprise community that they, not merely their user community, will ultimately benefit from the widespread use of their data, and when developing their linked data strategy they should consider how they can “enhance” the value of the Web of Data, for paying and non-paying users alike:

…[A] viable business model for the data-curating Enterprise might be to expose timely and accurate enrichments to the Linked Data ecosystem; enrichments that customers might pay a premium to access more quickly or in more convenient forms than are available for free…

I’ve purposely avoiding considering the legal and social issues associated with publishing certain kinds of enterprise data as linked data (see also this), which I addressed in a post, Protecting your Linked Data on the Blogger version of this blog…

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