Why Does Google Hold Back On Faceted Search?

August 15, 2009
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Sometimes the response to a comment is worthy of an entire post, and this is one of those times. In response to my recent post about Able Grape, a wine search engine developed by Doug Cook (now Director of Twitter Search), Lee asked:

Let’s say I know almost nothing about wines/digital cameras/cars and a search site offers me “options” to drill down. However, I can’t use those effectively and eventually it comes down to availability and price for me. My questions are what are your thoughts on these kinds of situations and is there a scientific explanation/theory on this case?

This may be why Google does not endorse faceted search except for experimental projects.

It’s a great question. There’s been a lot of research on how people make decisions when they have to manage trade-offs among multiple attributes, and the increasing interest in behavioral economics since Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 has helped some of that research has even percolated into the mainstream thanks to bestsellers like Freakonomics and Dan Ariely’s Predictable Irrationality.

The short answer is that there’s no point in offering users options that they can’t (or won’t) use effectively. Choice

Sometimes the response to a comment is worthy of an entire post, and this is one of those times. In response to my recent post about Able Grape, a wine search engine developed by Doug Cook (now Director of Twitter Search), Lee asked:

Let’s say I know almost nothing about wines/digital cameras/cars and a search site offers me “options” to drill down. However, I can’t use those effectively and eventually it comes down to availability and price for me. My questions are what are your thoughts on these kinds of situations and is there a scientific explanation/theory on this case?

This may be why Google does not endorse faceted search except for experimental projects.

It’s a great question. There’s been a lot of research on how people make decisions when they have to manage trade-offs among multiple attributes, and the increasing interest in behavioral economics since Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 has helped some of that research has even percolated into the mainstream thanks to bestsellers like Freakonomics and Dan Ariely’s Predictable Irrationality.

The short answer is that there’s no point in offering users options that they can’t (or won’t) use effectively. Choice overload is certainly a problem, and our reaction to it is to satisfice, typically resorting to “fast and frugal” heuristics that throw out most of the potential decision criteria and instead focus on one or two attributes, e.g., price and availability.

But that’s no reason to dumb down the data we make available to decision makers. We make hard choices all the time, and fast and frugal can be horrendously suboptimal. We don’t hire employees based solely on their price and availability – or at least good employers don’t! For that matter, I don’t think most people pick wines that way, given that even Trader Joe has to diversify beyond “Two Buck Chuck.” And, while there’s probably more of a market for cheap cameras and cars, I’m pretty sure you’re an extreme outlier if you completely ignore other criteria.

That said, there are some caveats about exposing options to users. Faceted search is hard, especially on the open web. Take it from the folks at Microsoft Research – but I’m sure Googlers would be the first to agree, especially given their experience with projects like Google Squared that, while promising, are nowhere near ready for prime time.

I appreciate that Google is conservative about embracing faceted search–and HCIR in general. I’m actually impressed by the steadily improving quality of their related terms for search queries–even if they do hide them behind two clicks (show options -> related searches). Perhaps they’re feeling some pressure from Bing. But I think they’re largely following the dictum of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Google is an extremely successful company. And, as Clayton Christensen argues, successful companies are great at incremental innovation and bad at disruptive innovation. As far as I can tell, faceted search is very disruptive to their model.

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