SAN JOSE, Calif. – The Web is going atomic.

But don’t call Homeland Security just yet. It could be a good thing.

“Something’s happening with content and the word is it’s being atomized,” said Gerry Campbell, senior vice president of AOL Search at America Online.

SAN JOSE, Calif. – The Web is going atomic.

But don’t call Homeland Security just yet. It could be a good thing.

“Something’s happening with content and the word is it’s being atomized,” said Gerry Campbell, senior vice president of AOL Search at America Online. Campbell spoke Tuesday during “Drilling Down on Local,” an annual conference focused on local Internet search technologies.

Tech gurus have coined the term Web 2.0 to describe an evolution of content and community on the Internet, and Campbell said an underlying trend in this transition is the increasing atomization of Internet content, communication and commerce. And all of these things are driving toward an online presence that more truly integrates with real life, he said. “Until the Web actually permeates real life, everything we think of as community is not really (community) – it’s artificial.”

The real estate industry is waking up to the changing face of the Web. Officials at Homestore Inc., soon to be Move Inc., announced last month that the company’s popular property-search Web sites will be launching features that will allow real estate professionals and consumers to post content and interact online. Other real estate-related Web sites, too, feature social interaction and user-generated content as tools toward building community.

Modern music consumption is a good example of the atomic trend that represents a next step in the Web’s evolution, Campbell said. Vinyl record albums eventually shrank to CD size, and the music on those discs has been dissected into digital format for download over the Internet. Now it’s typical for people to purchase individual songs rather than entire albums. “Now songs have their own currency and their own transaction, to the dismay of copyright holders,” he said – the Internet has brought music “down to the atomic level.”

Communication has been similarly deconstructed by this atomic trend. Internet and other forms of modern communications have tossed aside many of the previous formalities in favor of speed and clarity. Just as the cavemen scratched the wall of a cave with simplistic symbols and drawings, modern communication technologies have “completely blown away” previous communications techniques and etiquette, Campbell said. For example, a request to meet for lunch might be conveyed today by a simple electronic note that reads, “Lunch?”

Commerce is atomizing, too, he said, as consumers can use the Internet to buy specific parts and pieces that previously would have been difficult to find without this resource.

The Web’s future will be characterized by increasing connectivity with its users, Campbell said. Just as Web 2.0 trends represent a step toward more social interaction, the “atomic age” of the Web will be driven by a critical mass of people interacting online, and more direct connections between the Web and individuals.

“There will be a time when we’re having a constant conversation with friends, acquaintances, information … that’s the future. Local will pop. It’s going to pop when this world comes. We’ve got to stay focused on tapping into consumer intent.”

He added, “Over time consumers are becoming more and more empowered. Consumer control is growing very quickly. Consumers are going to stay in the driver’s seat.”

There are companies working toward this future Web in various vertical markets, Campbell said, citing real estate and financial services as examples. “Verticals are a huge part of the future. I’m very bullish on verticals.” Real estate is by nature a very social experience, he said, and barriers still exist for consumers who are searching for homes online. Some new real estate technology ventures fit the mold of this next-generation Web by offering mechanisms for social interaction, streamlined property search methods and results and more instantaneous communication with real estate professionals.

Campbell said that, an online home valuation tool launched by the founder of Expedia, is among his latest favorite sites to visit on the Web.

Online search companies are working to better identify users’ intent and to produce search results that are more meaningful and thorough for users, Campbell said. For example, a user who is searching for a movie title might be steered directly to search results that include detailed listings of the times the movie is showing that day in a nearby theater. In this way, online search may be moving toward “find.”

While the earliest stage of the Web served as a one-way information resource, Web 2.0 represents a more interactive exchange of information and rudimentary communication, Campbell said. And the atomic stage of the Web will represent a time in which users can more fully interact, gathering and passing along information and knowledge.

In defining this new atomic era of the Web, Campbell related a story of his search for a good breakfast. He asked a stranger where he should go to get a good meal. The man told him about a restaurant with good food for a good price. Just as advertised, the meal was good and filling and reasonably priced, Campbell said. The man later went out of his way to check on him and see if he enjoyed the meal.

“That’s how the Web should work. The Web will be that guy who I met,” he said. “The future looks nothing like the past. It’s not about (Web) pages.”


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