Online tailored suggestions curb serendipity
by Freddy GdiP
An article I read a few months ago stated that Google has designed its new campus in Mountain View in a way that promotes “casual collisions of the work force” which, in turn, is supposed to induce the all elusive serendipitous moment and generate unexpected ideas.
While I´m not so sure that you can actually engineer serendipity by designing a building because there is nothing unexpected about a building -at least not more than once- and because the people who populate it tend to repeat the same patterns, I certainly applaud the idea behind this and I applaud Google´s intentions to encourage its employees imagination. This is a great policy for companies everywhere and it demonstrates, once more, that Google is at the forefront of entrepreneurial innovation and creativity.
However, there is a key area where I believe Google is not encouraging creativity but doing the exact opposite and it’s in its core product: the search engine. Efficient search results are tailored by nature: a search result specifically tailored for my request will produce the specific outcome I expect. If I search for “scrambled eggs recipe” I hope to find recipes on how to prepare scrambled eggs. So far so good. But, if everything else is tailored as well, then you get cocooned inside a net where new ideas are rejected in favor of “contextually relevant suggestions”: tailored ads, tailored suggestions, tailored YouTube video suggestions, tailored ads inside my Gmail account, etc. Each one of these things is chosen to reflect our personal online profile and ends up shaping a considerable chunk of our Internet landscape in the form of a finely tuned mirror that throws our interests back at us. And by suggesting the same kind of things that I searched before, Google is forcing me to repeat myself all the time. Yes, I get it: If I like this I might like that as well. If I make a search for scrambled eggs recipes I might feel inclined to click on the ad that sells frying pans. But this technique, while brilliant for marketers, is terribly bad for the chance encounter and is terribly bad for the generation of new ideas. I never get to bump into anything new anymore. Or at least not nearly as much as it used to happen 15 years ago, when things weren´t so tailored. That´s the reason why sites like Stumble Upon are so popular these days: because they try to bring back that discovery potential for the Internet which the users have been missing without even knowing it.
Despite expressing the exact opposite in every possible medium, creativity is not a feature that companies want their consumers to have because a creative consumer presents the company with challenges that cost money to solve: not good. Even the most innovative of companies, like Google, are extremely conservative when it comes to letting the consumer take a bit of control. Here´s an idea that won´t get picked up: Google should foster creativity by curbing itself a bit. Yes, I know this is quite an absurd thing to ask to the biggest Internet behemoth but, if it really cared about ingenuity and creativity outside of its own walls then it would restrain a bit from trying to over-tailor the user experience and let randomness take over a little more. How could Google do such a thing without risking its immense market share? Here´s another idea: I never quite understood the use of the “I´m feeling lucky” button. It´s just a button that takes you straight to the first link of the search results. What´s the use in that? Maybe Google could replace that button with a new one called “Serendipitous Search” -or something catchier- which, if pressed, would present us with a slightly less tailored search result. How slightly? You would be able to control the percentage of randomness with a slide bar. What would be the advantage of this button? You would come across things that wouldn´t have occurred to you in the first place: unexpected findings that could lead to new ideas. And the slide bar would control how far from the original search the new results would be. That way Google could maintain all of its tailored suggestions without crippling its discovery potential for the user.
Exactly how would this button work? Imagine you make a search for “vacation rentals in Nebraska” and you give it a 5% random search result on the slide bar. The engine would search for results that have a 95% match with the query. Instead of giving you a result that reads exactly “Vacation Rentals in Nebraska”, it might give you a search result in the possible lines of “Vacation Rentals in Colorado” or “Moonshine Bootlegging in Nebraska”. Sites with similar content tend to share its more relevant words so it wouldn´t be a problem for the search engine to determine the hierarchy of the words that could deviate percentually from the topic. Sites for “Vacation Rentals in Nebraska” will probably repeat the words “cabin”, “woods”, “kayaking”, “all inclusive resort”, “mountain view”, etc. (in case you are wondering: No, I´ve never been to Nebraska). So the search engine could choose to exclude a 5% of those repeated words. That way you have a functioning search engine that can throw you back the exact result you are searching for or it can also suggest new ideas that you hadn´t considered. If we define Serendipity as the generation of an unexpected idea born out of an unrelated and unrequested event, then this is the way to engineer it on a huge scale.
If you don´t feed your mind with new ideas every once in a while you can become quite repetitive. Lucky for us, Internet is a great tool for discovering new things. If anything, that potential should be made even more accessible than it already is. Google´s global popularity is so big that it probably wouldn´t be a gross overestimation to say that any modification in its user interface would entail a slight change in the way people use the Internet. And if that change fosters the generation of new ideas then it should be welcomed with arms wide open.