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“Got kitesurfing on the mind, mixed with some search & classification tech, and a dab of political ranting”

Not a Big Fan of Personalized Search

Posted by direwolff on March 9, 2007

As I’ve previously mentioned in other posts, I’m not a huge fan of personalized search. Gord Hotchkiss on the blog “Search Engine Land” provides an overview of why he likes it and what many of the objections arising from this topic are. While he does a good job outlining “The Pros & Cons of Personalized Search“, there’s a section that crystalizes for me the myth of personalized search. Specifically, Hotchkiss writes:

Imagine you had two alternatives when you went shopping. One is a vast department store which carried everything you could possibly imagine. The store is usually well organized and everything is well labeled, but it’s up to you to navigate through the store and find what you’re looking for. There’s no one to really help you, although there are a number of useful signs to keep you pointed in the right direction.

The other option small store ran by a store owner who you deal with all the time; a store owner that knows you as a friend, knows your personal likes and dislikes and always seems to find just the right thing for you. In fact, all you have to do is say what you’re looking for in a few words, and based on how well he knows you, the store owner runs in the back and never fails to bring back exactly the right product, in the right size and the right color.

The first scenario describes where search is today. The second scenario describes where search wants to go in the future. As the scope of the Internet gets larger and larger, the need for personalization to bring it within our scope becomes more and more important. Search had a tough enough job when it was just trying to connect us with websites.

Well, by the standards he describes in his second scenario, I’d say that if there’s such a thing as a store owner that was good enough to know the right product, the right size and the right color about any product I desired, we would call her a psychic, and she should quickly get out of the store owning business as there are more lucrative ways to use such talent. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, it’s all about context, and while there might be some context to extract from search history for some future searches, this is not a universal phenomena that can be indiscriminately applied across all future searches.

Disambiguation as Gord discusses it, is an issue, and indeed search engines are poor at that (though I agree that Quintura has done something innovative here, and I’m a fan of Vivisimo’s Clusty for their efforts here too). You’d think the search engines would start with some basic things here, like trying to derive semantic relatedness of terms used in a query when there’s more than one. Heck, even people in their daily interaction require disambiguation assistance. Some of these clues come in facial expressions and tone of voice, but these are only guides and when they don’t suffice we ask another question (it’s called communication). Why should it be any different with a search engine? Sorry, but I don’t buy that users are being asked to do too much given how little they already do in entering one to three word queries. Users are not currently communicating effectively with search engines. But let’s discuss the context issue a bit more since I believe it’s at the core of the solutions being attempted in the various personalization methods.

Searching for an Italian restaurant and seeing those in my neighborhood come to the top of the list is nice contextualization of the results. This could be addressed today by looking at the IP address of the searcher. Now, this would be a very bad way to do this if I live in Oakland but want to have dinner in San Francisco. Hence, why I need to tell the system a location in the form of city & state or zip code. What if I follow this up with a search request for theatre tickets, should I see these sorted by places near the restaurant locations I previously clicked on? Perhaps a nice way to sort the results except that I wanted the theatre tickets for another night…doh! In spending some time thinking about my search behavior, I find that search histories are useful when I want to re-find something that I know I previously looked for, but I’m not a fan of applying them to form some sort of context. Much like I’m not a fan of having my friends’ search activity impacting my results. Every search isn’t about a recommendation.

Context is a very difficult notion that includes multiple axes, only some of which can be captured by a computer and the data around the activities that I’m involved with. Already I mentioned facial expressions and tone of voice as some of the “tells” that help context. Note that when we interact with someone on the phone and don’t have these “tells” to help us out, our conversations require longer interactions and more communication. This is why I believe that communicating with computers requires people being more educated how to do so more effectively, while technology can continue to get better at helping us disambiguate language. It’s not about divination and replacing the human effort, which seems to be the kick that all of those talking about personalized search are on, but it’s about making it easier for people to communicate their intent.

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