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Friday, July 08, 2005

Want Your Page to be Popular? Just Add Water. (Or, 1997 Wine, New Bottles)

Danny offers a detailed explanation of how search marketers are probably going to try to exploit Yahoo's My Web 2.0. OK, I admit it, I'm a bit confused. Luckily, Danny sums it up by suggesting that what Yahoo appears to have (for all intents and purposes) accomplished is to create a newer-generation "FFA" (free for all) pages system... where a page gets to be deemed popular for awhile until other stuff pushes it down.

What would have helped me understand this brave new world a little better would have been some additional context comparing Yahoo's new product with some of the failed "P2P search" experiments such as OpenCola... or the shared bookmarking services (like Jonathan Abrams' HotLinks) that had the potential to make a real contribution to search in general, by offering a mechanism for those sharing similar interests to highlight and share useful content.

One thing's for sure, social networking and search already do overlap and can work in harmony. But the characteristics of the social networks themselves are going to be paramount in determining how well it all works.

If we're going to be following users around and basing "you might also be interested in" search results on what content some users seem to find useful, I think there is still something to be said for the idea for creating a slight departure from the quasi-democratic culture of the web, & enrol/enlist celebrities and topic experts (columnists, authors, etc.) to somehow participate as "more equal than others" content taggers. As some experts have long argued, metadata schemes are only as good, as trustworthy, or as coherent as the operators entering the categorizations and recommendations.

Either way (friends & citizens, vs. experts & celebs), featuring user-recommended content can work. You might go to a restaurant because a friend recommended it, or because a critic raved about it. On the other hand, you don't care what a friend of a friend of a friend thinks. Nor do you care what some random person thinks just because a machine identified them as a person with similar interests as yours.

Amazon's recommendation system, incidentally, is much less gameable... the notion that "people who bought this book also bought...." rests on purchase behavior, which cannot be cheaply faked.

Because friends' recommendations or habits can be helpful guides to helping users find useful content, it is tempting just to make the peer recommendation system stronger, to prevent glitches and gaming. However, the incentive to screw around with results is high, and with an expert-driven system, it would be more accountable and less open to manipulation. As often as not, what you get with "democratically-driven" search suggestions is bias under the guise of science. But isn't that what the search engine industry has been all about since 1995? Creating a system to "calculate" what results should be seen by the user... that's science. Expert recommendations are interesting... but they're not science and they don't justify multibillion dollar valuations.

The need for search to be grounded in "science" and complex calculations is a good story, so I wouldn't expect the SE companies to deviate from it anytime soon.

Yahoo's experiment should be hailed for what it is: an experiment that, while flawed, will help search get to the next level (whatever that is).

Back in the real world, though, we're just hoping we can convince the local bike shop to put their address on their website, and get rid of those frames.

And I hope this doesn't make me sound too clueless, but while we're racing ahead talking about the semantic web and peer networking and all, what are we actually accomplishing here for the serious business user, say, who is looking for new and important content to help them do their jobs? We cannot all play "search junkie" and "community enthusiast" for a living. So wouldn't it make sense to talk about latest-generation "clipping services" such as the corporate services side of companies like Moreover, etc.? Is the cool factor of file sharing (in the musical sense) beginning to trivialize the task of helping the average working person discover relevant content, do research, etc.? Those who are most likely to benefit from advanced systems to discover material on highly specific topics seem least likely to play around with the latest dot-com experiment.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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