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On Using Search for Decisions

By - August 17, 2009

As part of BingTweets, an FM/Microsoft promotion blending the two services, I was asked to opine on the idea of how we use the web to make decisions. My first post has been up for a while but I managed to lose track of time and forgot to let you all know about it. I wrote a piece called “Decisions are Never Easy – So Far” – and have already written a followup piece, though that one is yet to be published. (And yes, I’ve asked them to make that picture smaller. Migod.)

From the first post:

If what you are looking for is a hotel room, a plane ticket, or something else in the “head end” of search results, plenty of sites aggregate tons of results for you. But as soon as you go a bit down the tail – like my example for classic cars – search becomes a pivot point for an ongoing and often taxing decision process. The opportunity, I think, is to figure out a way to support that process down the tail – saving us time, clicks, and frustration along the way. I see two paths toward that goal: one is creating applications on top of “ten blue links” which help me organize and aggregate the knowledge I process while pursuing a search query, and the second is making my searches social, so I can share the process of learning and learn from those who have shared – not unlike Vannevar Bush’s “Memex” concept.

When the second piece is up, I’ll post an excerpt here as well.


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9 thoughts on “On Using Search for Decisions

  1. Greg Satell says:

    ear Mr. Battelle,

    There is another perspective to the problem in Network Theory.

    It involved Stanley Milgram’s famous “6 degrees experiment.” (The one where people had to send a package to a stockbroker in Boston knowing only his name and occupation). The people in the study also had to perform a “search” and people do “social searches” every day. (i.e. who can help me get my child into a snotty boarding school?)

    There was a chapter on the issue in one of the network theory books (I think it was Duncan Watts’ “6 degrees,” but I’m not sure). I can track it down for you if you want.

    I’ll probably write something about social searches in my blog, http://www.digitaltonto.com. Just put it on the list. Thanks for the idea!

    Regards,

    Greg Satell

    P.S. Loved your book!

  2. JG says:

    John,

    If what you are looking for is a hotel room, a plane ticket, or something else in the “head end” of search results, plenty of sites aggregate tons of results for you. But as soon as you go a bit down the tail – like my example for classic cars – search becomes a pivot point for an ongoing and often taxing decision process. The opportunity, I think, is to figure out a way to support that process down the tail – saving us time, clicks, and frustration along the way.

    Haven’t I been saying things like this on your blog for years?

    See here:

    http://battellemedia.com/archives/004579.php#comment_133084

    There is very little provided by the big search engine companies by way of exploration, understanding, insight, summarization, sensemaking, et cetera. The user is left having to manually comb through hundreds of thousands of results in order to make sense of all that data, themselves.

    And here:

    http://battellemedia.com/archives/004688.php#comment_134730

    Ah, but the web is different. At least it was supposed to be. The web was supposed to be driven by long-tail forces. Search is supposed to drive users to places that they wouldn’t or couldn’t have found on their own. Search isn’t supposed to drive users to busy main streets with lots of neon lights. Those sites are already easily locatable, without a search engine. Do you really need a search engine to locate bestbuy.com? No. Search is supposed to get me past that raucous main street, and out into the individual homes and quiet boulevards, to find individuals, smaller establishments, rarer items, in situ.

    That latter post has a bit more to it; I’d recommend re-reading it. There are a couple of back-and-forths between Vanessa Fox and me, about Tim O’Reilly’s “Found” conference. I was expressing some frustration at the fact that the whole purpose of the conference appears to emphasize the “head end” of the distribution, at the ongoing expense of really being able to dig into the tail.

  3. Mike says:

    I think that the mere act of publicizing (to your friends, or a select group of your friends) that you are trying to make a decision about a particular subject (“Las Vegas helicopter tour operators,” from recent personal experience) would go a long way toward solving this problem.

    When I searched Google I want the opportunity to simultaneously “notify your Facebook friends that you are searching Google for “{query}.”

    In more cases than not, one of my friends will be able to help me.

    tx

    m

  4. John says:

    JG, you sure did say that many times. I lose track after 5000 posts and 25000 comments!

  5. Clay Hall says:

    Another feature that would make search more customized to users’ preferences would be to allow searchers to choose what they want to see returned first, middle, and last, such as: (i) magazines; (ii) newspapers; (iii) non-profits; (iv) government; (v) blogs; (vi) manufacturers and distributors; (vii) retailers, etc.

  6. JG says:

    JG, you sure did say that many times. I lose track after 5000 posts and 25000 comments!

    I know I’ve commented about this topic at least 5-6 times over the past 3-4 years. I just didn’t remember when and where. So I did a web search to try and find all those instances where I’d written about it. I needed to search down the long tail of comments.

    How well did I do? Terribly. I found one post from Nov ’08, then I found a second post from Aug ’08. Nothing from ’07 and ’06 and I think even ’05, though I’m 98% positive that such comments do exist.

    The irony here is that the very thing we’re talking about — search engines that do a poor job of supporting tail- and recall-oriented queries — is the very same obstacle I faced when trying to search for instances in which I’d written about search engines doing a poor job of supporting tail-queries.

    My inability to find those posts that prove my point…almost proves my point. How delicious is that? :-)

  7. I consider your posts a reliable source of ideas about where search could/should be heading. Search over a period of time, overlaying what I know and allowing elements of sharing is the foundation for a project I have been working on for 2 years.

    Please excuse the self-promotion, but we just released the site and the underlying technology is finally starting to mature. We believe we can start serving the needs mentioned in your post and the other comments.

    Pintarget uses a Research Folder into which you can save links, recommendations and conversations. Over time, the Research Folder learns from what has been saved (we call them ‘pins’), and using your own profile, it generates personal search alerts when it finds new information. Your Research Folders can be made private or shared publicly.

    Sorry to use your post so blatantly to advertise this. When it comes to researching online – we’re ambitiously trying to save our users time. Not because it’s faster than Google at one search. But because Pintarget works within their decision process to get to a decision quicker and with less repetition.

    They said to aim high!

    Everyone in the team is eager to get feedback on whether this is a good step forwards. We’d be very happy if anyone wants to get in touch or sign-up and give us a try. Thank you; I won’t spam your comments list again for at least another month. :-)

  8. John says:

    David – looks interesting but can you share and learn from others who are creating these research portfolios?

  9. John, yes, you can.

    We consider privacy very important. So the key for Pintarget is when a user says, “I’ve reached a degree of maturity on this research and I’m happy for others to see what’s in my Research Folder”. The user then makes the Research Folder public.

    Making it public means the Folder gets published to the ‘news feed’, your friends can get an alert, and others in the community will find the Folder when they are searching something related. The user is also able to share it with someone directly.

    At the moment, it’s a basic list of pinned items. Once we have the feedback that this works – we’ll be expanding the functionality to allow comments against each pinned item (“I pinned this because it has a really good recommendation on…”), friends to suggest other links and recommendations for the Folder, sharing on socnets, etc.

    There’s a year-long list of where we can take this!

    With the bit of machine learning, NLP and semantics going on in the background – all this activity builds the Folder’s ability to find and recommend other things.