Video: Improving Search With Serendipity — And Cashing In

1Executive Summary

When you’re dealing with millions (soon to be billions) of people creating megabytes of data at every step, from their location to their tweets to their presence, filtering that river of data becomes almost impossible. Add to that the bytes of data created by corporate research and advertising efforts from multinational corporations and you have what Om last year called “the data deluge.” To make meaning and get context out of this information, we need to develop ways to facilitate “serendipity.” Such was one of the key takeaways from our GigaOM Bunker Series event on the New Net that looked at where the web is heading.

Serendipity is often talked about by those interested in search and discovery tools, but defining it proves to be something of a problem. At its core, though, serendipity is about surfacing relevant information in surprising ways — compared with more active search, the audience at Monday’s event described serendipitous discovery as a more “passive” way of consuming information, as an “unexpected” encounter. Many of the tools that exist for web users today are focused on more active types of discovery, so what needs to happen to facilitate more spontaneous, passive forms of discovery?

In order to harness serendipity, we need to train both users and the software that surfaces content. One of the key things that needs to happen on the user side is preparing the vast majority of the world to understand how their data can be shared and used (as well as make them comfortable with sharing it). Once people are comfortable sharing the data and know where it will go, it’s up to the engineers to figure out ways to surface that information for people in a way that allows them to make use of it.

Apparently it can be done. Tom Coates of Yahoo talked about how Flickr surfaces photos based on the concept of “interestingness.” Rather than simply elevating the most “appealing” photos — babies, sunsets, kittens, and other such prosaic-yet-popular content — they have figured out how to mathematically bring other pictures to light, balancing a variety of interactivity to find the most “interesting” images. That’s serendipity in action — kind of like creating an algorithm that functions like a record label’s A&R man; they search through all the dreck out there to find something (arguably) good.

That’s on the technology side. One of the key elements of the talk was the idea of preparing people to be receptive to serendipity — to expect interestingness where they go in the world and on the web. Several people brought up cognitive experiments showing that the difference between lucky people and unlucky people wasn’t chance — it was behavior. Those who were lucky tended to be more open to opportunities they encounter while focused on completing another task.

The question, then, becomes this: How can engineers put people in the frame of mind to be receptive to unsolicited information that they may find useful?

Training users to engage with technology is nothing new — participants pointed to the difference between community behavior on Flickr and YouTube, as one example. Flickr, which had a strong focus on community, provided ground rules and guided interaction on the site; that continues to generate meaningful comments and discussion between users. Meanwhile, comments on YouTube, which has never offered much guidance or moderation, can rarely be considered community-minded. In the same way, tools that facility serendipity may require users to develop a different culture around how they discover information than traditional search.

As the conversation around how to offer people serendipitous information and prepare them to receive it, continues, I hope that people will start to talk about how to monetize the delivery of unsolicited information. It’s easy to see that if someone searches for “the best running shoes,” Nike might want to purchase an ad next to that; but when the result of a search or a question generates something unsolicited, how will advertisers and site owners value that and monetize that? In the video below, I asked John Hagel, the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge about monetizing “serendipitous” information, as well as some of the larger issues about finding content.

Stacey Higginbotham is a Contributor to GigaOM.

Celeste LeCompte contributed to this article.

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