Loss Leaders versus Exploratory Search

Chris Dixon has a post yesterday about search and the social graph.  An interesting read, but what struck me the most was a tangent about how current search engines make money:

Lost amid this discussion, however, is that the links people tend to share on social networks – news, blog posts, videos – are in categories Google barely makes money on. (The same point also seems lost on Rupert Murdoch and news organizations who accuse Google of profiting off their misery).

Searches related to news, blog posts, funny videos, etc. are mostly a loss leaders for Google. Google’s real business is selling ads for plane tickets, dvd players, and malpractice lawyers. (I realize this might be depressing to some internet idealists, but it’s a reality). Online advertising revenue is directly correlated with finding users who have purchasing intent. Google’s true primary competitive threats are product-related sites, especially Amazon. As it gets harder to find a washing machine on Google, people will skip search and go directly to Amazon and other product-related sites.

I’ll repeat the salient bit: “Google’s real business is selling ads for plane tickets, dvd players, and malpractice lawyers.”  What struck me about this statement was not its veracity.  What struck me was its relationship to exploratory search.   It is when searching for a plane ticket, purchasing an expensive consumer good, or hiring a decent lawyer that my need for exploratory search is at its highest.

So my question is whether or not there is a tension here between getting the users off of the results page as quickly as possible — especially when the route off that page is typically via an advertisement on which the search engine makes money — versus enabling the user to remain on the results page in a process-oriented mode of sorting and filtering and playing around with the results in a myriad of different ways, so as to come up with a set of options that best satisfies the exploratory need.

Do these two goals conflict?  Why or why not?  It is an old question, but I am still searching for a satisfactory answer.

Update: Perhaps I should have been more clear as to what characterizes an exploratory search session.  There are dozens of papers out there that tell the story much better than I can, so I will quote one of them.  It’s by Michael Levi at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, published at the Information Seeking Support Systems (ISSS) workshop in June 2008.  Title of the paper is “Musings on Information Seeking Support Systems”.  (See http://ils.unc.edu/ISSS/ISSS_final_report.pdf) I quote:

Some characteristics of open-ended, discovery-oriented exploration emerge:

1) I may not know, at the beginning, whether a seemingly straightforward line of inquiry will expand beyond recognition. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. A lot depends on my mood at any given moment.

2) I can’t predict when the exploration will end. It may be when I’m satisfied that I have learned enough (which also would vary from day to day and query to query.) It may be when I get tired or bored. It may be when I’ve run out of time. Or it may be when I get distracted by dinner or the allure of the swimming pool.

3) I can’t determine, objectively, whether the exploration has been a success. There is usually no “right answer” against which I can measure my progress.

4) My exploration is not a linear process. I could get interested in a tangent at any time from which I may not return. I am also likely to backtrack, possibly with some regularity, either because a tangent proved unfulfilling and I want to resume my original quest, or because I thought of a new question (or a new way of formulating a previous question) to direct at a resource I visited previously.

5) I am likely to want to combine, compare, or contrast information from multiple sources. One of those sources is my memory – which may or may not be reliable in any given circumstance.

Levi then makes a number of recommendations about what an information seeking support system should do, to enable this sort of exploratory search:

A useful information seeking support system, then, would require the following minimum functionality:

1) It should not interfere with my behavior as listed under Characteristics of Exploration above.

2) It should give me capabilities at least as good as those listed under Manual Tools above.

3) It should positively assist my explorations by making them easier or faster or more comprehensive or less error-prone or…

In addition, an ISSS might give me capabilities that I never employed before because they were not possible or because I didn’t think of them.

But, to be truly a leap forwards, an ISSS would need to exhibit at least elements of discernment, judgment, subject matter expertise, and research savvy.

Again the question: Is there a tension here between getting the users off of the results page as quickly as possible — especially when the route off that page is typically via an advertisement on which the search engine makes money — versus enabling the user to remain on the results page in a process-oriented mode of sorting and filtering and playing around with the results in a myriad of different ways, so as to come up with a set of options that best satisfies the exploratory need?

I’ve already heard certain search engines state that their goal is to get the user off the search page as quickly as possible.  That it and of itself tells me that they’re specifically designing the system so as to interfere with behaviors listed under Characteristics of Exploration above (Levi’s first recommendation).  Why does it interfere?  Because my goal is to stick around in the results and compare and contrast, whereas their goal is to get me off of the page as quickly as possible.  And so the whole system is designed to do the opposite of what I want it to do.

Additionally, I was also pointing out that the information domains on which I usually have the largest exploratory-type information needs are very similar to the information domains on which the search engines make most to all of their money.  I’m still trying to figure out what to make of that.

Thoughts?

9 comments to Loss Leaders versus Exploratory Search

  • Depends on your point of view. From the user’s point of view a satisfactory answer can be provided by either a result or an ad. From the search engine’s point of view the best result is if the user clicks on the ad whether the ad is presented in the search results or on the landing page. From the point of view of the person running the ad, they just want to make a sale.

  • jeremy

    Francois,

    Perhaps I should have been more clear. In Exploratory Search, your answer doesn’t necessarily come in the form of a single page or ad. One page or ad might actually be the best option, but even when you see that page or ad, you won’t know it unless you’ve had the chance to engage in comparison and contrasting, i.e. exploratory search.

    And so if all I am getting back from the search engine is a list of ads (and pages), if that is the only process that is supported by the search engine, then that process/result itself is already not a good answer, no matter what ad is actually contained on the page. Why is it not a good answer? Because my goal, again, isn’t to find any one single page or ad. It is to compare and contrast and summarize and understand the relationship between all the various pages and options.

    Stated another way, the best answer (or even the most satisfactory answer) doesn’t become the best answer until the user has had a chance to explore. So again, for information needs like purchasing a dvd player or buying a plane ticket, the goal of the search engine is to get the user off of the search page as quickly as possible. This does seem to conflict with the user’s goal of exploration, no question about that. But where I am curious is whether the search engine business model has anything to do with either (1) setting up, or (2) perpetuating, that conflict.

    What do you think?

  • jeremy

    I just updated the post, Francois, to help clarify some things. I hope this helps the discussion!

  • Jeremy

    Thanks for the clarification, I think I understand where you are coming from now. So yes I think there is a tension, if you think of it in purely economic terms, the more searches you run before clicking an ad the more you eat into the profit margin the search engine makes on that ad. That may sound very small when you think of the scale of the large search engines out there, but if everyone suddenly had to run twice as many searches to get to an answer there would be a significant impact. And I am not even thinking of exploration here.

  • Makes a lot of sense. A corollary is that search results have to be better than competitors but not perfect because you want to encourage users to keep performing new searches as each new search displays a new set of ads.

  • jeremy

    Another fellow (Nate Graves) over on Chris Dixon’s blog had a comment about this as well. I’d like to link to it here: http://cdixon.org/2009/12/17/googles-feature-creep/#comment-26249483

    Quote: “One thought I’ve had is that maybe Google is introducing these new elements as a means of forcing users to do less scanning. Google makes money if people click on ads. The less the Google page changes, the easier it becomes for users to scan through information. The more users scan, the less they pay attention to ads. So, possibly Google is trying to break up the typical visual pattern as a means of driving users back to clicking on ads.”

  • jeremy

    Though to be fair to Google, I have heard Marissa Mayer complain lately about the amount of “jazz” (unpredictable-ness) of information layout in the Google SERPs, and wanting to tame that jazz back down again. Less jazz means easier scanning, and so perhaps what Nate is saying doesn’t quite hold.

    However, supposedly all these things that currently exist on the web page have already been A/B tested and proven successful. So another of my ongoing questions about how search engines work is how a page can become so jazzy that users start to not like it, but that every single change to that page has been successfully tested, meaning that users do like it?

    That seems like an obvious contradiction to me, and I don’t really understand it.

  • I see what Nate is saying but I’d agree with Mayer about the amount of “jazz”. The aim is to get the user to perform new searches or modify the current search as each action will refresh the ads.

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