From search to discovery

We are in the middle of a shift, from an age where Google and others enabled us to quickly search online for things we wanted to know more about, to an age where we are increasingly able to discover the most relevant, delightful and useful information–even when we aren’t sure how to search for it. This shift is in large part a shift in costs: from the sender to the consumer. Senders used to pay to reach us. Now they can do so instantaneously and virtually for free, so the costs have shifted to us, the receivers, creating more demand for tools that help us find signal in the noise of the Internet.

So says Andreas Weigend, former Chief Scientist at Amazon and currently a lecturer at Stanford and UC Berkeley in this video.

It may seem like a subtle shift, but it involves a different set of rules; a new physics, if you will.

The age of search required new and sophisticated ways to tell computers what it was we were looking for, and to be served up a huge range of possibly relevant, possibly irrelevant, content. Now search is ubiquitous.

But we are now overwhelmed with choices of content, and are left to sift and filter through the many possibilities to find the information that serves our needs. This process of sifting and filtering is the search for relevance; and we don’t always know what it is we’re looking for when we’re searching. We are looking to discover something–about the world, about ourselves.

Whereas algorithms ruled in the age of search, Weigend says the new age of discovery requires a different set of rules. Those rules, he argues, can be formulated when the system (be that Google, content providers, or our friends on Facebook) knows more about us. The age of discovery, he says requires that those hoping to facilitate the search for relevance find powerful ways to convince people to share personal data that then allows us to serve up more relevant content.

So we must now understand what compels people to share personal data. Weigend says it’s the desire to spread memes and genes.

I believe that, whereas algorithms ruled in the age of search, human values such as trust, empathy and credibility will rule in this new age of discovery.

We must build trust so people feel comfortable sharing personal data with us; be credible so that when we use that personal data people see that we’re doing so towards a valuable end; and show empathy by serving people’s deeply held needs, creating deeper engagement that leads to deep focus and attention.

And it’s in that last measure, the degree to which people reward us with their attention, that we’ll understand whether or not we’ve succeeded.

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2 thoughts on “From search to discovery

  1. pdavidtigan says:

    Something about this post reminded me of the problem with dictionaries. How can you look up a word to check its correct spelling if you are unsure of the correct spelling? How can you discover the word you intuit is correct, but cannot spit out at the moment, like it is stuck on the tip of your tongue? I used to think those thoughts when I was a too-clever fifth-grader, but the world has since addressed the problem since then. “Search” is sort of like that. You use as many letters as you know to get to the part of dictionary with the answer. You know a related word and get out the thesaurus.

    Google provides fifty pages of results, but users rarely venture past the top five of their search – and for good reason. But in reality, this is not too far from knowing word starts with “oxy-” and going to that part of the dictionary to find the remainder of the word (I’m thinking of “oxygenated,” by the way).

    When I read your post, especially the near-brilliant second to last paragraph, I think that the next step in “search” is not the computer reading our minds, but instead chipping away at the impreciseness of the solutions we have come up with so far.

    There may come a time when we realize that “Search” is over, though I don’t know how close we are. When “search” is completed, you are right that we will need a new mechanism for discovering useful information. I like to think of it as “sifting.”

  2. Hey Andrew, great post. You should come to class on Mondays from 2:15-3:05 in Gates B01. Check out for more info.

    What brands convey trust, empathy and credibility to you?

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