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The future of enterprise search is Trip Advisor

So said Roovn Pakiri, co-presenter of the keynote address at this year’s Enterprise Search Europe (London, April). His presentation represented the curious way in which a logical argument can go from a simple, sensible statement to something that is decidedly questionable within a few sentences. There was some justice in the premise, but a sharp intake of breath at the event when this conclusion was stated. How did the argument lead to this point?

<--break->Roovn Pakiri, to be fair, was developing a theme that was initially presented by his colleague Dale Roberts. Roberts suggested, uncontroversially, that when we take business decisions, they are the worse when alternatives have not been considered, echoing Sydney Finkelstein and others in his article “Why Good Leaders make Bad Decisions”. He then proceeded to suggest that since we discuss major choices with others, that social acts enable inclusive decision-making. This is where the argument started to go become for me less convincing. “Interaction protects us from bias” was the next statement, and of course, that depends on who you interact with. If you talk to a taxi driver before making an important life choice, I don’t think it is likely to make your decision more considered or less biased. Nonetheless, he was absolutely right to state there is something to be said for building search systems that support interaction rather than just information. He also stated that we may benefit from systems on the Web such as anonymous reviews when we make decisions. We are all aware of what he described as “strangers who help us make decisions” when we are making a purchasing decision on the Web.

But the presentation went I think one step too far when Roovn Pakiri talked about how “We just went on holiday in Venice, and we did everything, the whole holiday, using Trip Advisor”. Hence the breathtaking conclusion that the future of enterprise search is Trip Advisor.

There are many problems with this statement, three of which are:

Why should Trip Advisor carry unbiased reviews, any more than Amazon or any other major review site?
The way you choose a holiday may not be the same way you make an important business decision (at least I hope not).
A purchasing community such as Trip Advisor operates in a very different way to (say) a corporate intranet or a professional community.
In any case, Trip Advisor users may not want to see the same things in Venice that I want to see.
There can indeed be an element of interaction in some very effective purchasing community websites: for example, Digital Photography Review is a highly detailed reviewing site with a well-informed and highly attentive community who point out many details of cameras that might otherwise not be noticed. This remarkable site, owned incidentally by Amazon, combines comment with a well-configured database of cameras that enables users to search in very precise ways. While not all the comments on the site can be read with equal weight, nonetheless this is a community in which content and comment tend to reinforce each other, and I would not want to buy a camera without reading what both the review says and what other users say. There are claims that the site has become too close to the camera manufacturers, but a comparison with Amazon’s own site itself shows how poorly navigated and poorly informed a buying decision would be if it were to be based on Amazon alone.

And of course, authority is a key criterion. I may not agree with all the articles in Nature or the Times Literary Supplement, but I certainly approach them in a very different way to the posts in Trip Advisor. Even for a highly informed site like DPReview, a reader will continue to bear in mind where the review is coming from and what possible motives they may have.

The presentation could have more usefully concentrated on the factors that lead us to trust a community; one of those factors is certainly authoritative content. Content can appear on a community site alongside comment to create a powerful combination – as in DPReview. It doesn't prevent banal comments being posted by clueless users, but community features can certainly be affected by the content that appears alongside it. Next time I go on holiday, I may look at Trip Advisor – but only to remind myself there are better sources of information, and better ways of making a decision.