Cathodic Protection may be Lost in Cyberspace
an essay by
Delano P Wegener, Ph.D.

On Thursday, July 8, 1999, The Los Angeles Times printed a story about the World Wide Web which has significance for the cathodic protection industry. The story, distributed by the Los Angeles Times - Washington Post News Service, was carried by newspapers around the country as well as several nation TV new programs.

Some of the most important facts reported in the LA Times story are:

  • The Web contains 800 million web pages on 3 million servers.
  • Combined coverage of the top eleven search engines is only 42% of the Web.
  • The rest of the Web exists in a black hole, impenetrable by surfers.
  • Northern Light has the most comprehensive index at 16% of the web.
  • Only four of the top eleven search engines index 10% or more of the Web.
  • Pages which are indexed take an average of six months to be indexed.
  • Northern Light is the most comprehensive and is virtually unknown.
The source for the story is a report of a study, conducted by Steve Lawrence and C. Lee Giles at NEC Research Institute, which appeared in the scientific journal Nature (NATURE/Vol.400/8 July 1999).

Significance to the cathodic protection industry is contained in the above statistical data, the reasons for those data, reactions from the search engines, and predictions by search engine leaders.

About 85% of users depend on search engines to locate information on the WWW and most of those use no more than one search engine. This means that in many cases nearly 90% of information on the web is not accessible to users. In particular, most cathodic protection information on the web is not accessible to users seeking information about the topic.

According to Lawrence and Giles, who have conducted similar studies in the past, "A very strong trend can be seen across all engines, where sites with few links to them have a low probability of being indexed and sites with many links to them have a high probability of being indexed." In reaction to the trend of search engines to use various measures of "popularity" to rank the relevance of pages, they caution that less popular sites will have an increasingly difficult time becoming visible in search engine listings.

Regardless of your feelings about cathodic protection, it cannot be denied that in comparison to web sites in general, cathodic protection sites are not popular in any method of measuring popularity. Dr. Wegener of DelWeg.Com observes that this lack of popularity has already affected visibility of cathodic protection related sites.

Kris Carpenter, director of search products and services at Excite, said her company purposely ignores a large part of the web. Similar admissions, by other search engine representatives, have been reported in the past by Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch. However, Oren Etzioni, chief technology officer of the portal Go2net and a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, issues a serious warning relative to this approach.

"There is a real price to be paid if you are not comprehensive," he said. "There may be something that is important to only 1 percent of the people. Well, you're talking about maybe 100,000 people."

Are 1% of web users interested in cathodic protection? Probably not. Does Etzioni's 1% constitute a default lower limit about which to be concerned? Probably. The impact for the cathodic protection industry is that even those who argue for "comprehensive" indexing of the web, are willing to forego areas as small as cathodic protection.

A small interest area such as cathodic protection is itself responsible for insuring that cathodic protection information does not become lost in cyberspace. Rather than depend on general search engines, the cathodic protection industry must provide its own high quality search service which indexes all web sites related to cathodic protection. A modest beginning for such a service was begun two years ago at DelWeg.Com.

Mrs. Carpenter predicts that the future of search engines lies not in bigger indexes but more specialized ones in which everything on a given subject could be indexed. Mr. Sullivan has reported similar predictions by other industry experts.

Regardless of the algorithm to measure popularity, specialized search engines are considered popular because they serve as conduits for much of the traffic in the area. Therefore, a specialized engine has a high probability of being indexed and well ranked by major search engines. Sites in specialized search engines are then retrievable by the web user.

Lawrence states, "I'm pretty optimistic that over a period of years the trend will reverse." But he added, "The next 10 to 20 years could be really rough."

Cathodic protection on the web will remain easily accessible only through specialized search engines or directories such as the fledgling directory at DelWeg.Com. When this directory was begun, many in the industry questioned its value, but today's traffic of about 100 visitors per day on the site indicates that its value is recognized by many surfers looking for cathodic protection resources.

Early in 1994, when Brian Pinkerton of the University of Washington launched WebCrawler with information from 6,000 servers, his work was heralded as a significant achievement. If cathodic protection related web sites constitute just one-half of one percent of the web, there are more cathodic protection pages than Pinkerton indexed in the early days of WebCrawler.

When the WWW was an infant, it was possible for an individual, in his or her spare time, to construct an index of a specialized area. These early excellent indexes have disappeared, gone terribly out of date, or have obtained significant outside support and sponsorship to work at a pace to match the explosive growth of the web. Those which remain as high quality indexes offer much more than simple lists. Their coverage is complete and well organized according to the best Information Architecture strategies so that information is easily retrieved. They are visited every day by thousands of professional searchers as well as casual surfers. Supporters of such a search engine or directory benefit, usually through advertising, from the constant flow of visitors.

Thousands of pages of cathodic protection resources are already lost in cyberspace. At least 100,000 pages of valuable cathodic protection resources reside on servers around the world. These resources are hidden away in government, academic, and small company sites. They contain cathodic protection resources related to commercial products, engineering practices, recommended practices, academic offerings, research, online training, traditional training, regulatory data, etc. Locating, collecting, cataloging, and maintaining such a collection in a useful form is the challenge facing DelWeg.Com in particular and the cathodic protection industry in general.

The rapidly expanding web, the increased dependence on it for information, and the trend of major search engines dictate that specialized directories be developed for more areas of corrosion science. Specialized search engines for corrosion in concrete, coating inspection, MIC corrosion, internal corrosion, corrosion by sea water, and others would provide a valuable service to the corrosion industry. Perhaps specialized search engines will be developed to coincide with categories covered by the various NACE Technical Committees. Perhaps they will just correspond to interests of individuals maintaining the directories.

If the corrosion control industry chooses not to support development of a specialized directory of cathodic protection resources on the web, then indeed, cathodic protection will be lost in cyberspace.