Esther Dyson On Search

Esther Dyson shared some interesting thoughts on search at the Search Insider Summit in Bonita Springs, Fl. (as reported by the Online Daily Media.)

As for the future of search, Dyson said, “I don’t see the quality of search improving very much. Search is like telling a dog, ‘Go Fetch,’ I want something to ‘Go Fetch and Reserve’ [as in the right hotel room.] “Search is a task half-done.”

What’s needed, she said, is switching from a “search and fetch” mentality to a “deliver, act and transact” perspective based on personalization.

The real winner, Dyson said, will be a custom-built tool that understands the nuance of an individual, his or her phrasing, and specific likes and dislikes. This tool will incorporate both domain knowledge and user knowledge.

“You can sit in a room and make a better algorithm, but you can’t build something for humans without understanding how humans behave,” she said.

This is very difficult, you would need to collect a lot of information on your users in order to build up a very detailed picture of them, and even then there is no accounting to taste and irrational behavior. The only way we can really achieve this is by assuming that human beings are truely rational and predictable, and that is just not the case. Just ask any economist. While you can predict the behavior of groups of people to some extent, predicting the behavior of individuals is much harder.

Of course collecting all this information opens up the issue of privacy, which she addresses:

Be more transparent with users about what you are doing, and why, and they will reward you by participating, she continued. Don’t create a nine-page disclosure statement on behavioral targeting. Create one page that people understand, and get their buy-in.

“Openness and transparency are not just telling people. It’s making them understand,” Dyson said. “You either terrify people or you bore them [with your disclosure copy]. Make them your ally. Get them to understand your motivations, and that’s how you’ll win.”

It is hard to disagree with this, companies need to be open about what information they collect and what they plan to do with it, which some are doing willlingly and all are being pushed to do so by new laws and regulations.

Still it does make the assumption that collection of information on a vast scale will happen, and she does not address the debate of whether this is a good thing or not, or what happens when that information is abused or stolen.

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