I’ve added a couple of updates to my previous post about the “Google Discover Music” service that is launching today. See also Paul’s writeup.
But I have been reading Danny’s Sullivan’s liveblog of the release event, and came across a quote that made me chuckle out loud:
Bill talking about how this will let people hear more diverse music. “They’re [Google Music is] going to do for music what they did for the web.”
Oh my goodness, I hope not! Because what they did for the web is put a popularity filter in front of their content-based search mechanism:
Google search works because it relies on the millions of individuals posting links on websites to help determine which other sites offer content of value. We assess the importance of every web page using more than 200 signals and a variety of techniques, including our patented PageRank™ algorithm, which analyzes which sites have been “voted” to be the best sources of information by other pages across the web. As the web gets bigger, this approach actually improves, as each new site is another point of information and another vote to be counted. In the same vein, we are active in open source software development, where innovation takes place through the collective effort of many programmers.
I do not want my music retrieval and discovery algorithms to be powered by the millions of individual posting (and click) links in order to help determine which musicians and songs offer content of value. I do not want my music search results to have been “voted” their way into my results list. I do not want such a music search service to get even bigger by counting even more points of information and votes.
If Google ends up doing to music what they did to the web, they will destroy music. Please let it not be so. As Brian Whitman, founder of The Echo Nest, recently said at a conference:
“If we only used collaborative filtering to discover music, the popular artists would eat the unknowns alive.”
UPDATE: I just noticed something in this new Google Music service that I hadn’t noticed before: Popups! Check out this explanation video from the official Google blog, starting at 0:34 and going to 0:47. Compare and contrast that with the official Google position on popups on the Google site:
We do not allow pop-up ads of any kind on our site. We find them annoying.
But there is a solution! Google recommends the following:
If you are experiencing pop-ups generated by one of these malicious programs, you may want to remove the pop-up program from your computer.
1. You know as well as any IR researcher that web ranking is not solely based on popularity. And neither is collaborative filtering.
2. Music distribution is currently almost totally based on popularity or money. Which one depends on your flavor of cynicism.
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You’re correct; it’s not just that it’s collaborative filtering. It’s how you apply it. The way Google applies it is non-exploratory; it creates a single line, a non-interactive ranked list. The way a company like Last.fm applies it is more exploratory. At Last.fm, you can pivot around, starting with a band and going not only to similar bands, but to similar listeners. Should you select a particular listener, you can the get an “expert” recommendation on other bands and songs (rather than a collaboratively filtered recommendation) based on just that one listener. What Last.fm is still missing (though I know folks who work there and are aware and thinking about these issues) is a way of adding yet another pivot point based on content methods (signal analysis, etc.) So that part is coming. But at least Last.fm doesn’t try to make all your decisions for you, and present you with a single, linear list around which it is difficult to pivot and explore. It interactively gives the user a choice.
So I still do not want music search to be done the way web search is done: A single ranked list, with little ability for interaction, pivoting, exploration, feedback, etc. I still do not want Google to do to music what they did to the web.
Let me put it this way: Even if both Last.fm and Google contain an equal mixture of CF and other algorithmic signals, the overall effect that popularity/collaborative filtering has on the end user experience is far greater in Google than in Last.fm. That is because in Google, you are at the mercy of the ranked list ordering that they feed you. You cannot pivot, slice, refactor, in any significant ways etc. In Last.fm, on the other hand, you are much more in control of the experience, and choose to go from pure CF in the “similar bands” pane to expert-recommendations in the listeners pane, to “fellow critic” recommendations through explicitly-formed user groups. And back. In whatever order you want.
So if your objection is that my language implies the concept “solely”, then yes, let’s change my wording. Here is my new statement, changed words in italics:
“I do not want my music retrieval and discovery algorithms to be dominated by by the millions of individual posting (and click) links in order to help determine which musicians and songs offer content of value.”
And I proffer a rephrasal of Whitman’s statement:
“If we let our user experience be dominated by collaborative filtering to discover music, the popular artists would eat the unknowns alive.”
Does that change the fundamental argument? No. It should be more clear than ever that I still do not want Google to end up doing to music what they did to the web. What they did to the web is rely more on collaborative filtering signals (mass query-click graphs, PageRank, etc.) than on individual signals (what?! still no relevance feedback?!) And so my web search experience is dominated by collaborative filtering. I don’t want my music search experience to be dominated by collaborative filtering. I want more attention to be paid to individual signals, and less to mass signals. I’m not saying Last.fm is perfect and couldn’t be improved. But it is a strong step away from the web-like user experience.
I would like to turn the question around: If music distribution is currently almost totally based on popularity or money, tell me how this navigational/lookup offering from Google changes that. How does it change or improve or innovate on what already exists in terms of music discovery, and in terms of what can’t already be done by asking friends, typing in a song name to iTunes, or using Shazam to identify an unknown song while at the pub? What does Google Music fundamentally add to the world? Please explain.