A Button Without The Treat

A few months ago I wrote a post entitled +1 is Explicit, but is not Relevance Feedback.  I am often personally concerned that, with many of the posts I write, I am being pedantic.  However, last week TechCrunch came to the same conclusion: +1 Is Like A Button You Push For A Treat — Without The Treat.  Some highlights:

I understand the concept behind the +1 Button — it’s a smart one. You get people to click it and it improves the page’s search ranking for logged-in Google users with social connections (and eventually maybe all results). At least I think that’s how it works. But I have a hard time believing that all of you actually clicking on the button really get why you’re doing it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that you’re clicking on it! I am too on some of our stories. But I can’t help but get the feeling that it’s a bit like a cruel experiment we’re running. We put up a button, you click on it because it’s there, expecting you’ll get a treat. But there is no treat.

As I was saying a few months ago, +1 allows for explicit signaling.  But that signaling just isn’t a relevance feedback-type of signaling.  The person doing the clicking doesn’t actually get anything “fed back” from that action to their ongoing information seeking task.  TechCrunch continues:

If the +1 Button is serving me up better results, I’m just not seeing it. And yes, I know the button push also populates your Google profile with a feed of our shared stories. But let’s be honest, no one is looking at those.  We’re definitely not seeing any noticeable bump in pageviews coming from Google as a result of the button. Maybe that will slowly change over time, but I’m not convinced. The rate at which people are clicking on the button appears to be dropping each day. And soon it may be just like the *gulp* Buzz button.

This echoes what I said in my previous post:

In traditional feedback, an individual user marks a subset of documents as relevant and non-relevant, and then the system updates his or her ranked list results, immediately, so as to increase the recall (and sometimes also the precision) of documents not yet seen.  There is a reason it is called feedback: the loop is closed.  Just like when you hold a microphone too close to a speaker and start to get audio feedback.  That’s only possible because the output of one input gets fed immediately back into that same input.  Not into someone else’s input.

TechCrunch concludes:

Google needs to figure this out quickly. When you push a button, you need to get a treat. People will click for a while out of pure novelty and curiousness. But that only lasts so long. Without anything noticeable happening (like a share on Twitter, or a comment on Facebook), people will just ignore the button altogether. All over the web.

What has me scratching my head is why so many web search engines — and this +1 is just one example of the larger, industry-wise attitude — are so opposed to explicit relevance feedback.  Yeah, I know the story: Altavista or Lycos tried some version of an explicit relevance feedback +1 button  for a few months back in 1996 and it was found to not work well, because users were unwilling or too lazy to put any effort into using the tool.  Well, with +1 and +1-type functionality, we’ve seen that users are indeed willing to put the effort into using the tool — at least until they find out that the tool isn’t really doing anything for them.  So why not close the loop now — quickly! — before users build a strong association in their mind that +1-type buttons do nothing for the user, especially in the moment.  An association that takes another 15 years to correct.  Give the users a treat when they press the button.  How?  Close the loop of relevance feedback.  This is an opportunity, not a criticism.



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4 Responses to A Button Without The Treat

  1. jeremy says:

    Touche. 🙂

  2. Jens says:

    While I agree with you entirely, I’d just like to mention that feedback does not necessarily imply a feedback loop.

    Beyond linguistic nitpicking, I think that the reward to the user does not need to come directly from their own feedback (as it would when using relevance feedback to improve the current search). In the case of Facebook, the reward is social, and rather indirect. Sharing an item does not directly let you find more items of interest, instead you are giving something to your friends (who will hopefully be grateful rather than annoyed). In turn, you will be given shared items by your friends, but it is not a direct exchange. While in some cases there is a more direct loop in the form of comments, I don’t think that’s the predominant case.

    For +1 to succeed there are different ways. One is using the feedback directly to profile the user and improve search results (an advantage for Google over other such systems). The other is making users understand that they are helping their friends, and that they benefit from their friends’ suggestions, emphasizing the social aspect of it.

  3. jeremy says:

    Jens: The situation you are describing is still one in which there is a feedback loop. For friends A, B, and C, each of their +1’s might have an effect in this manner: A->B, B->C, C->A. Thus, what comes from A eventually gets back to A. That is still a loop.

    However, that loop is indirect and has no guarantees of being closed. And moreover it is not transparent, which means that it is very difficult for the user to see that it is happening.

    There is a possibility that +1 will still work as envisioned; however that will require an awareness of the social aspect that you mention. Do you perhaps have a proposal as to how this awareness could be increased?

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