Is the Ad-Sponsored Web Search Market a Conversation?

It has now officially been ten years since Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger wrote the Cluetrain Manifesto, rekindling and reminding us of the centuries-old notion that markets are conversations between people, buyers and sellers. The following are a few of the Manifesto’s points that resonate with me:

  • The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  • Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.  The community of discourse is the market.
  • Markets want to talk to companies. Sadly, the part of the company a networked market wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is. Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk to you. We want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance. We’re also the workers who make your companies go. We want to talk to customers directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.

The authors elaborate on this point a little more in their book:

The first markets were filled with people, not abstractions or statistical aggregates; they were the places where supply met demand with a firm handshake. Buyers and sellers looked each other in the eye, met, and connected. The first markets were places for exchange, where people came to buy what others had to sell — and to talk.  The first markets were filled with talk. Some of it was about goods and products. Some of it was news, opinion, and gossip. Little of it mattered to everyone; all of it engaged someone. There were often conversations about the work of hands: “Feel this knife. See how it fits your palm.” “The cotton in this shirt, where did it come from?” “Taste this apple. We won’t have them next week. If you like it you should take some today.” Some of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.  Market leaders were men and women whose hands were worn by the work they did….For thousands of years, we knew exactly what markets were: conversations between people who sought out others who shared the same interests. Buyers had as much to say as sellers. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, the artifice of positioning statements, the arrogance of advertising, or the shading of public relations.

The Internet was supposed to herald the dawn of a new era, a return to those days in which buyer and seller could look each other in the eye and, with a firm handshake, directly exchange goods and services for money.  How well as the Internet lived up to this promise?  In particular, how well has it lived up in the marketplace of Information Seeking?  Are information seekers (search engine users) and information providers (search engines) able to engage in the sort of marketplace conversation that the Cluetrain Manifesto authors advocate?

As an individual and as an Information Retrieval researcher, I am frustrated.  One thing that strikes me is that there is a complete dearth of companies that allow a direct exchange of information seeking services for cash.  No web scale search engines that I know of let me pay them for providing the level and quality of service that I demand. Instead, advertisers sit in a middle layer in between information seekers or buyers and information providers or sellers.  Info buyers (users) pay advertisers in attention, advertisers pay info sellers (search engines) in real cash, and info sellers then give the info buyers an information service. The 3-way exchange of attention and money seems to work well, but at the end of the day it is not the kind of marketplace envisioned in the Cluetrain Manifesto.  The buyers and sellers are not looking each other directly in the eye and coming to an agreement about the value and quality of the services exchanged. Rather, the discussion is being tempered by the advertiser, and by the seller’s obligations to the advertiser. 

On top of that, there continues to be a lack of transparency in the plans and strategies department.  Yesterday I commented about how evaluation drives innovation.  But beyond a couple of corporate mottos, slogans and mission statements about putting the user first, I have little clue about what evaluation metrics are being used to drive the solutions to my information seeking problems.  I have no idea what functions are being optimized, nor how well those functions relate to my explicit information seeking behaviors.

I agree with the Cluetrain Manifesto authors.  I want to talk to these information seeking service providers, these search engine companies.  I want to participate in the conversations that are going on behind the corporate firewall. And I want to make my needs known, directly, in my own voice and not through the statistically-aggregated voice of millions of people, many of whom are similar to me but many of whom are not.  I do not think that we are quite there yet.

What I would really like to know is whether there is anything that I can do as an Information Retrieval researcher to help speed this process along.  One of the reasons I am interested in Explanatory Search is that I have an intuition that this style of information retrieval can grease the way for better markets-as-conversations. It is not completely clear whether this will happen. Nevertheless, it is something that I think about as I develop my research questions.

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