The Quest for Information

First published June 26, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The third in my series in looking at how we search and how it might impact our brand relationships. Today, I look at how the emergence of Web search marks a dramatic leap forward in our quest for information.

The Great Library of Alexandria, built in 300 BC, was designed to hold all the knowledge of man. The dream of Ptolemy II was to assemble all the scrolls of the world in one place. Last week we explored why we sought knowledge. The Ptolemaic library was the first attempt to create one single repository for that information. Unfortunately, the media for recording knowledge was papyrus, which proved to be unpredictably flammable. The library burned not once but several times.

One of the challenges of seeking information is that it tends to be spread out and difficult to access. As we saw last week, when we seek information, we tend to either know what it is and where to get it, know what it is but not where it is, or, most challengingly, we don’t even know what it is we’re looking for.

Organizing the World’s Information

Google’s quest, picking up where Ptolemy left off, was to organize the world’s information. This is the big hairy audacious goal of all big hairy audacious goals. It’s never been accomplished before in the history of man. But Google is betting that it can be done thanks to the migration of information to a digital format.

In seeking information, humans will take the path of least resistance. This is not to say humans are inherently lazy. Like many things that come from evolutionary psychology, we have a tendency to reduce human behaviors to overly simplified maxims — and the inherent laziness of humans is one such oversimplification. It is true, however, than humans are inherently thrifty with our energy expenditures. Harvard professors Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, in their book “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices,” theorize that humans are driven by four basic drives: The drive to acquire, the drive to bond, the drive to learn and the drive to defend. As we pursue these drives, we constantly balance effort vs. rewards. We will pursue the things important to us, but we will generally find the easiest means to our ends. This is particularly true of intellectual effort, where many cognitive short cuts are prewired and are triggered without our conscious awareness.

The Irresistible Lure of Web Search

This is why search has become such a  fundamental human activity. The aggregation of information that sits just a few keystrokes away is a tremendously engaging prospect for us energy-efficient humans. We will take the easiest path to retrieve the information and do it in a brutally efficient way. Search interfaces have to be intuitive and sparse. The more complicated the task, the less attractive it is to us. This is why search tools that ask us to do any more than type in the bare minimum of keywords will ultimately fail if there’s an easier choice. And this is why Google has become a habit for us.

But what about intent? Different types of searches may require different interfaces and treatment of results. Again, we make expenditure/reward calculations at an instinctive level based on our experience and knowledge. We decide which actions will be most likely to yield the information we seek. As you explore human nature, one of the most striking discoveries is just how sophisticated our subconscious energy conservation mechanisms are. Habits, emotions, instincts and other non-rational drivers guide us to make split-second decisions that should provide the best results with the least effort, and they are usually remarkably accurate. They have been field-tested and encoded into our genes by natural selection for generation after generation.

Picking the Right Path to Information

There’s another factor at play here, our level of confidence that past behaviors will continue to yield satisfactory results in the future. And this is part of a largely subconscious decision process when we chose the path to the information we seek.

Remember, when we seek information, we fit into one of three categories: we know what we’re looking for and where to find it, we know what we’re looking for but don’t know where to find it, or we don’t know what we’re looking for or where to find it.

Search engines fit the first two categories quite nicely. The first category leads to the huge volume of navigational search we see online, where we’re looking at search to connect us to the right page on the right site. And the second category gives us the more typical search behavior, where we tell the engine what we’re looking for and it provides it suggestions of the best place to find it.

It’s the third category where search engines struggle. When we don’t know what we’re looking for or where to find it, it’s difficult to find the words for our query. It’s in this category where search engines are trying to break new ground, by becoming discovery engines.

So, how has evolution equipped us to look for information? In the next column, I’ll look at information foraging, information scent and berry picking.

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