I recently did an opening keynote down in Silicon Valley and before my audience got well into their first cup of coffee, I started ranting at them. Now, being Canadian, my rants are rather mild and non- threatening (although I apparently scared a lot of Aussies at SMX in Sydney) but consider it a kinder, gentler version of my blowing my top.
The reason? Well, Cuil, for one. But they weren’t alone. I was mad at the whole cadre of techno-geeks that are so wrapped up in their coded, widgeted, gadgeted, hyper-whatevered, buzz barometered, Flash enabled, Ajax powered GUIed, KPI dashboarded, social networked, Twittered to death world that they forget that we’re all human. The stuff we use to figure out the world we live in hasn’t changed a lot in the last gajillion years. It’s the hardwired, baked in the genetic code foundation we’re all given to work with.
Buzz is nothing new
Here’s another example. This week I did another post about how buzz travels online. If you go to any online conference today you’re going to hear “buzz” and “viral” and “virtual community” until you’re ready to gag on the entire concept of social networking. It’s almost as if we didn’t know the meaning of the word social until the Internet came along. At the very least, we’re told all the rules have to be rewritten now that technology has unceremoniously turned our world on its head.
My post said that it matters much more what prompts us to pass along information than it does what channels we choose to use. Passing on information is as old as time. We gossiped long before Al Gore invented the Internet (there..take that rumor and spread it!). Twitter and Facebook and all the social networking in the world can’t rewire our human psyches. There are rules these new channels have to live by. The better they understand those rules, the better everyone will be. Drop your Coding for Geeks handbook for a second and look at how humans interact with each other. After the post, I got an email from someone who consults on social networks who said that he can’t believe the number of people who preach the social networking gospel but have never heard of Mark Granovetter (who I referenced in my post). Hint to the clueless. If you’re going to create a social network, people are a pretty essential ingredient. It would be worth your while to spend a little bit of time understanding what makes them tick.
Picking up the scent
Another example. I was recently talking to a fresh faced group of search marketing account managers straight from the Ivy Leagues and asked them how many of them were familiar with Pirolli and Card’s Information Foraging Theory. One hand went up, and it was a tentative gesture at that. Anyone who works in search should understand the basics of Information Foraging. In fact, anyone who does anything on the web should read it. It explains so many of the why’s we have seen when we’ve looked at user behavior. Information foraging is a perfect example of how we have adapted inherent strategies to function in new environments. How we decide when it’s time to abandon a website and look elsewhere has a lot more in common with apple picking than with Apple Computers.
Cuil is anything but…
And that brings me to why Cuil made me hot under the collar. Cuil set out to shake up the search paradigm. Nothing wrong with that. And I don’t doubt for a minute the impressiveness of the collective IQ of the founding board. But why the hell didn’t they spend a little bit of time understanding how humans search for information, how we scan pages, how we determine information scent and how many different pieces of information we can consider at a time. A quick read of any search user behavior study, including my own, would have quickly told them their interface was a disaster.
Or consider, for that matter, Microsoft’s CashBack Scheme. After a temporary blip upward in marketshare, Live’s numbers are dropping to new lows according to most of the monitoring services. The pack of web analysts fell over themselves announcing that CashBack was a success in July, and then pulled a major muscle quickly retracting themselves when August’s numbers hit. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I predicted as much back a few months ago. Google is a habit. A rational appeal like Cashback may catch some searches out of interest, while it’s top of mind, but soon we’ll stop thinking and simply fall back into our old habits. The peak and valley was as predictable as generations of human behavior. A phone call to any doctor who deals with patients who smoke, drink or overeat could have told Microsoft as much and saved them millions in promotional budget.
The human condition
Humans are humans are humans. That’s the only constant you can count on. We have been dealt our hands from an incredibly shallow gene pool. I’m not a determinist, but I am a realist. Yes, we can overrule our inherent drives, but that takes a lot of energy and most of the time, we’ll go where our genes and their extended phenotypes tell us to go. That determines a tremendous amount of human behavior. The rate of technological change is dizzying, but at the end of it all, it still needs to fit into the same existing framework: how we think, how we act, how we perceive the world around us, how we relate to each other and how we determine our best interests. That’s what I tried to show in the Human Hardware series that you’ve found in this space for the past several months. Perhaps it seemed a little out of place in a blog all about search, but searching is, after all, a human activity. It has to abide by the rules.
So, in looking at where to take this column, I’ll be extending invitations to a few of my friends in the space to come and share their thoughts. The overall goal will be the same: to shed light on how we behave. It’s a big box that will sometime extend well beyond the search industry. That’s okay. It’s healthy to look up from our bid management tools and our HTML code and spend a few minutes of each day wondering why people do what they do, including the insufferable geek in the next cubicle. Who knows, someday it could prevent you from wasting millions of dollars of VC money.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.