Discovery seems to be one of those things that we don’t really spend a lot of time doing, but when it happens, it’s like our world could not exist as it once did. Whether it’s great discoveries of mankind (oh snap, the world is round) or small discoveries made by each of us everyday (Baoguette – Vietnamese sandwich shop on 25th and Lexington), the result is the same … totally mind changing.
How we find things on the web, or rather how we think the best way to find things on the web has changed dramatically. The initial thoughts were to build web portals, where anything and everything you wanted to know would be conveniently located on a single web destination. Our one stop shop for discovery. That quickly changed when consumers were not able to find the best information in one place, and instead scoured the web for sources they personally found valuable. As content became easier to publish, resident experts were now making places on the web to get very specialized information, and we needed a new way to find things.
Hello Yahoo, I’d like to introduce you to Google. Google – “We’ve got this great algorithm that scours the entire web and returns the best result. You can buy us for $1M.” Yahoo – “Well that’s silly, why would we want people to leave our site? We want people to stay on our site for as long as possible. Carry on now, nothing to see here.” (I’m still shocked that Yahoo would pass on this; if not for the not so obvious revenue model, but just to use Google’s search to discover great content to add to their own portal!)
So spurned by Yahoo, Google acquires a small company called AdSense and the rest is somewhat recent history. Google really capitalized by making a better way for users to find things. They served up what people were looking for better (PageRank) and linked it with people providing what users were searching for. Awesome, so now people can find out where to get things that they are looking for.
Often discovery is more than just finding where to get what you are looking for. Discovery is often a question of “what do I want,” versus “where do I get it.” Search does a great job of solving the “where”question (Where is Boaguette located?), but it’s not so great for the “I could really go for something sweet & spicy, but not served in a sauce with rice.” To solve that, we look to the experiences of others, and we count on their recommendations to discover new things. Search will always have it’s place, but taking good ol’ word of mouth and placing that in a useful platform on the web will open up all kinds of new doors of discovery for everyone.
Recommendation models have come a long way, but there is still work to be done. NetFlix recently ended their competition to improve their recommendation algorithm and will pay the winning team $1M. There is a huge amount of value in this space, and companies are recognizing that more and more each day. How do we capture that on the web? A difficult problem to solve, but one with great rewards.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Greg Linden, the man behind Amazon’s recommendation system, that pretty much sums it up. He said, “Whoever manages to change the nature of content display on the Web from a search problem to a recommender problem will reap tremendous rewards.” It makes a lot of sense when you think about where you got your last great restaurant recommendation.