What is the Data Telling Us?

Always On panel: What is the data telling us?

There are some interesting tidbits on personalization in this July 2006 AlwaysOn panel, “What Is the Data Telling Us?”, with Peter Norvig (Google), Jim Lanzone (Ask), Usama Fayyad (Yahoo), and Michael Yavonditte (Quigo).

The panel moderator, Bambi Francisco, focused on privacy issues at the beginning, and the panelists appeared a little reluctant to talk.

Usama Fayyad started off early by saying: Knowing what people do collectively or in segments of special interests gives you a lot of very interesting information and a lot of leverage in terms of product and making things more relevant, including making advertising more relevant, and makes a better service.

A bit generic, but it is a good framing of the problem. We are trying to use aggregate data to make search and advertising more relevant and useful.

Bambi continued poking at the privacy issue, sparking Peter Norvig to say that Google really does not need or want to know everything about you. As Peter explained, building up some uber profile of everything you have ever done is less important than focusing on your recent history:

What’s important is not you as an individual, but it’s the role you are playing at the moment. When you are looking for one particular piece of information, I don’t want to know about you so much as I want to know about all the other people in the same situation and what they did then.

And I’d rather know about what is your history for the last five minutes as you try to solve this problem than know about your history for the last five years.

Exactly right. What matters is your current mission, what you are trying to do right now. We can help by paying attention to what you are doing right now and helping you get it done.

Jim Lanzone chimed in around here, both talking about how users will not do a lot of up­front work in search and expanding on Peter’s point about helping people with the problem they are currently trying to solve:

Most users are actually very lazy. While some high end users might use products that require tagging, the vast majority of people won’t. The behavior they will use is to iterate on a search engine.

That one white box is just so easy for them to put in whatever is in the top of their head … then the average searcher will review a result page in 5 seconds or less … they get clues and then they will iterate their search.

That’s why the average search session will have 3 or 4 searches … That is part of the game for them, is finding a clue, iterating their search, getting more specific, and then Geeking with Greg finding what they need.

It’s not worth their time to sit there and toggle a bunch of things in advance of their query, to then hopefully get a better result. It just saves them time to start going.

At this point, Bambi seemed to shift focus a bit and ask a bunch of questions about personalization and recommendations. Again, Bambi was not getting a lot of answers, but most of the answers she did get were fairly negative toward the idea of personalized search.

For example, Usama said, “You really can’t read the searcher’s mind,” a statement that reminded me of a quote from former A9 CEO Udi Manber: “People will learn to use search better but have to invest the thinking ­­ we are not in the mind reading business.” I was surprised to see Peter echo this point, saying something to the effect that Google would have to be clairvoyant to guess user intent given a search of a couple keywords.

I think both of these statements miss the point of personalized search. The idea is not do to something with nothing. That would be magic, mind reading. No, the idea behind search personalization is to add data about what a searcher has done ­­ especially what a searcher just did ­­ to refine the current search.

If the couple keywords in a search are too vague, looking back at a searcher’s history may help disambiguate it. If a searcher is iterating and not finding what they want, paying attention to what they just did and did not find can help us narrow down on what they might need.

The entire talk is good fun, worth watching. Usama is focused on Yahoo Answers and social search. Jim talks mostly about search experience and making search easy. Peter adds clarity on a few points and has a few amusing anecdotes. Do not miss Peter’s joke around 53:23 in the video about a haiku he found of some searches in the logs, “a story of … frustration and release”, very funny.

Author:Greg Linden


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