Tapping Into the Brains of the Web

We know about the problems of finding information on the "invisible Web"—that portion of the Web that search engines cannot or will not spider. But there is a deeper, truly invisible Web of information that will forever exist beyond the scope of search engines—the knowledge residing in the brains of experts. The Web enabled us to identify those gurus, the people who have in-depth knowledge and who are thought-leaders and influencers, and email makes it easy to contact them.

Unfortunately, gurus are bombarded with unsolicited email, not only with spam and viruses, but also with an astounding number of requests that go far beyond what is appropriate to ask. Search engine gurus regularly get requests like: "Can you please contact all the major search engines for me and explain to them that what I'm doing isn't spam?" To complicate things, sending email is so easy that people often send queries to experts with no real expectation of a response. As a result, these experts are deluged with what amounts to semi-spam, making it even more difficult to separate the real questions from the "Gee, I wonder if I can get an answer?" category.

I have become more mindful of the etiquette involved in querying the elusive guru. So, putting my theory into practice, I queried several Web gurus and asked them for their thoughts. What would entice them to respond to a random email query? Do they even try to respond? What kind of email do they actually enjoy receiving? Here's what I learned.

First, don't send an email until you have thought through why you are contacting the expert. Is your question something that you could answer yourself by looking at the expert's Web page or by doing some simple research on your own? Is your goal to respond to an article the expert wrote? If so, your email is more likely to be answered if you have something thoughtful to say, rather than simply "Hey, you're so right" or "Hey, you really have it all wrong."

Use an informative subject heading. An email titled "Hi there" or, worse yet, bearing no subject line at all, will likely get automatically filtered into the spam bucket. On the other hand, a subject line such as "thoughts re: image searching" sent in response to an article on how to conduct Web research for pictures stands a better chance of getting answered or at least opened.

Keep it simple. As Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch. com, said, "Chances are, anything with a giant, involved question in multiple parts will just sit there unless I can relate it to a story I'm working on or until after I've dealt with all the easy stuff. And as more things come in, the complicated question may get further and further behind."

Be polite. Chris Sherman, editor of SearchDay (www.searchenginewatch.com/searchday), told me, "I ignore virtually all email from anyone I don't know that demands or assumes a reply. I also ignore any email that presupposes I'm happy to spend time researching a topic or providing a detailed reply without any offer of reciprocity. Bluntly, I'm not a non-profit operation." All of the experts I queried agreed that flattery, while always nice, doesn't affect whether or not they will respond.

Be thoughtful. Recognize that the expert's time is limited. Include your phone number with your query, on the chance that a phone call would make it easier to respond. Sullivan commented that the reader emails he enjoys getting are those that help him understand something new, which he may then be able to use to help others through a story. And Gary Price, editor of ResourceShelf.com, is more likely to answer questions that help test or improve his search skills.

Don't expect something for nothing. Price described a jaw-dropping request he received: "I'm preparing a marketing plan to open a sporting goods business. I need the following lists by tomorrow afternoon. Thanks." Wow.

Be patient. As Price noted, "Don't assume that I'm willing and able to answer your question right away—for free." Many Web gurus are on the road a fair amount of the time, on consulting projects or speaking engagements, and often their time online is limited. That means that they return to the office to face a deluge of email, and your query just may not have priority. Sherman made an interesting observation: "I find it ironic that many people who practice good offline time management skills feel guilty about not replying to email. Somehow, email gets an automatic high priority that's simply not justified in the larger scheme of things."

Finally, don't despair if your email isn't answered at all. As Sherman said, "I hate to admit this, but I don't answer most email—even top priority messages that I shouldn't put aside (like from my mom)." In fact, one of the Web experts I contacted while writing this article didn't respond to me for a couple of weeks. And she reminded me that I need to give a deadline if I have one; that way, she knows how to prioritize the request. Lesson learned.