Independent Thinking Blog

Are Lists the Future of Search?

My mouse was driving me crazy.

I changed the battery, cleaned the bottom, and even tested multiple mouse pads — and it was still sluggish with periods of just not working at all. So I wised up, went online, and purchased a new mouse from Amazon.

Amazon makes it easy to shop (and pay) — when you know what you’re looking for.

I also bought another mouse pad, because you never know. And because Amazon informed me that “people who bought this item also bought…” Yup, it worked.

But then I got stumped.

I figured there was something else I needed. I mean, Amazon has pretty much everything. But good luck finding it if you don’t know what “it” is.

You can’t window shop on Amazon.

Window Shopping on Hester St

Amazon is great at inventory, but it’s not set up for window shopping. Even if you pick a category, like electronics, books, or household, the choices are so vast that it’s difficult to sort through the options. Even its search engine isn’t really that robust. I put in “mouse pads” and got a whole bunch of irrelevant results mixed in with a few useful ones.

Sometimes you need less.

Google started out with “10 blue links.” Essentially, the search engine curated the top 10 links it thought were the most relevant. Gradually, search has become more personalized. And, with that, it’s arguably also more narrow.

But it’s rarely overwhelming.

Ditto for Spotify, which generally offers a number of tools to uncover music you like but forgot about as well as artists you might not have known but would like. A lot of this is through playlists (aka, lists). Spotify’s model is curation, which helps address the “it” question. Meanwhile, it’s not good at search. So if you’re looking for artists you like who have done Bob Dylan tributes — good luck with that.

There’s a tradeoff between curation and search.

Bucket List

Benedict Evans has a terrific post on the tensions between search and curation. He writes, in part,

The problem with using a list instead of a searchable database is how you get to scale — or perhaps, what kind of scale you can have. So, Yahoo’s hierarchical directory (a list of lists) got to 3.2m entries before collapsing under its own weight — it was too big to be browsed, and reached the point that only search made sense (and Google did better search). But if the list is shorter (that is, more aggressively curated as opposed to just compiled and catalogued), then who’s doing the curation, and more importantly, how do you find the list in the first place?

Read his post. Evans doesn’t solve this dilemma, but he does offer a lot of food for thought.

Mouse by Janoma CL (Flickr); Window shopping by Berenice Abbott; List by Alexander Mueller (Flickr).

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