Search and Our Online “Set Point”

First published March 18, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Derek Gordon’s piece on Siri this week gave concrete proof of what I’ve been saying about the transition of search from a destination to a utility. Consider the example Derek gave of Siri’s functionality:

make action-oriented queries into your iPhone like “find me a good French restaurant for two tonight.”  Using your iPhone’s location coordinates, it will search Yelp for positive reviews of restaurants in your area, find a reservation for the most popular one via OpenTable and ask if you’d like to confirm a reservation.  Once you’ve confirmed the time, Siri will book the reservation for you. 

Notice the words Derek uses: “search” Yelp, “find” a reservation, both as intermediate steps to the end goal, allowing you to take action. And the Siri interface sits between you and the sources of the information. It’s exactly this interposing of a layer of functionality between the information and the user that I was talking about two weeks ago when I said that Steve Ballmer was thinking about the future of the search revenue model.

An application like Siri is only as good as the number of things it can do. Functionality, not information, is the new promise of the Internet. As John Battelle said in a recent chat with me, we quickly adjusted to the fact that the Internet could make us smarter. Now we expect it to let us do things better and faster. Information is only a means to an end.

Our Online ‘Set Point’

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman believes that we have a happiness “set point.” For example, winning a lottery doesn’t really make us happier in the long run. We just ratchet up our level of expectation to accommodate our new circumstance. I believe the same is true about our feelings towards advanced technology.

In the early days of the Internet, we were consistently amazed when we found information “out there.”  It seemed that no matter what we were looking for, with enough diligence, we could find some source for it. The Internet was one big information archive, and search was the key we used to unlock it. But as with happiness , we’re very quick to reset our expectations. Amazement quickly gives way to a sense of entitlement. We now accept the fact that the information is out there somewhere.  We now expect applications to gather it for us and present us with an opportunity to act on it.

The Road Ahead for Search

In a few short weeks, we’ll be gathering on Captiva Island in Florida to discuss where search is going. I believe a central theme will be this idea of search as a step towards usefulness.  We have reset our expectations and we need more from search. And this raises an interesting possibility. I have talked before about how Google became a habit for us. But habits only remain stable as long as they produce the expected results. Once we stop getting what we expect, we ready ourselves to break the habit and build a new one. It’s hard cognitive work, but we will undertake it if the payoff is worth it in terms of expected utility. As our expectations, fueled by glimpses of potential functionality through apps like Siri, are raised to a new set point, we will be less satisfied with the vanilla search experience offered by Google. This means, finally, we may be ready to break the Google Habit.

Google’s counter to that will be that Siri benefits from having a very focused purpose, supported through a dedicated interface and structured data. It’s impossible to match that functionality across all categories and use cases. Very true and very rational — but it doesn’t matter. If our online “set point” gets reset, our loyalty to Google will suffer. Suddenly, we won’t be satisfied anymore, because we believe something better is out there.

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