Talking with Martin Hepp about solving the paradox of choice

In his luminous essay Information obesity, Ned Gulley illustrates the paradox of choice:

I’m reading about the Mohawk Trail, where the Cold River crashes noisily down the granitic glacier-fractured hillside. Where whispering understory birches are sheltered by towering firs. Now my mouth is watering. I have to go. I am referred to ReserveAmerica, a well-built web site that manages thousands of parks nationwide, and — DAMN! Mohawk Trail State Forest is booked solid. I start researching other nearby campgrounds, and now I’m sucked into the game. Unfortunately, ReserveAmerica lets you pick your campsite from an interactive map, and my book tells you which sites are the very best at each campground. Just when you start to salivate about the perfect spot, your dream is dashed by some early bird camper who’s beaten you to the reservation. You can cycle through this process for hours.

I borrow the phrase paradox of choice from Barry Schwartz, who argues in a compelling TED talk that as we broaden our options in all areas, we ratchet up our expectations about how good those options will be. The result is disappointment.

Less is more — except when it isn’t. My counterexample is a recent quest of mine for a particular kind of double-stick tape I needed for an interior storm window project. Key criteria included width (roughly 5/8″) and type of adhesion (plastic to wood). Web search yielded a bewildering array of choices, from various sources, but no way to filter by my criteria. This isn’t some idle consumer whim. I’m trying to save energy in the most effective way I can. I want to see as many qualifying choices as possible. But I can’t.

In Restructuring expert attention to revive the lost art of personal customer service I described one great solution to this problem: Kevin, the resident expert at FindTape.com, with whom I discussed SCF-01, DC-4420LB, and eventually settled on 3M-4905.

When there’s a Kevin available, he’ll be my first choice. But there won’t always be a Kevin. The answer in that case is not to artificially constrain my choices. That already happens because web search doesn’t enable me to state my criteria. Instead I want to search more effectively. To do that — as noted by several comments on Barry Schwartz’s TED video — we need to overcome filter failure.

This week’s Innovators show, with Martin Hepp, explores how we can create better filters. It’s a follow-on to an earlier show with Kingsley Idehen on the topics of RDFa, the GoodRelations ontology, and the idea that we can become the masters of our own search indexes.

The conversation mainly revolves around how to express an offer for goods or services by means of RDFa snippets that use the GoodRelations e-commerce vocabulary, that are generated by a form-based tool, and that rely on the web’s venerable traditions of view source and copy/paste.

But the same vocabulary used to describe offers can also express needs. And here Martin makes a really good observation about the current architecture of web search:

You can only search synchronously. You can’t ask a question and say, ‘Work on this for two weeks, improve your results in the background, and then come back with the best answer.’ But think about the potential if we can increase the amount of computational time for returning results. Currently there is only 400 milliseconds, because this is the average patience of web users. But if you can express what you’re looking for, and save it with a name, then the search engine will have two weeks to produce a good list of results.

I was also intrigued by Martin’s comments on intermediaries and affiliates. In his view, a commerce site like Amazon is not the only possible source of filter-enhancing metadata. Affiliates can play too. A travel service, for example, might supply search engines with enhanced views of Amazon relative to certain places and certain areas of expertise.

The paradox of choice is real, and in many cases we may indeed be happier with less. But when we really need or want more options, we shouldn’t have to prematurely foreclose them. Search could be far more effective, and an approach like the one Martin envisions is the way to make it so.

Talking with Kingsley Idehen about mastering your own search index

Kingsley Idehen’s vision of a web of linked data long predates the recognition I accorded him in 2003. He’s seen the big picture for a very long time, and has been driving toward it consistently. Over the years we’ve had conversations in which I’ve always wound up saying: “Yes, OK, but how will we get people to create this web of linked data that we want to navigate and query?”

On this week’s Innovators show he responds with what I find to be a plausible scenario. Every business, and increasingly every person, presents some kind of home page to the world. On those pages you will find, implied but not clearly stated, one or both of the following kinds of assertions:

1. Things I offer.

2. Things I seek.

A plumber, for example, may offer hydronic heating services, and may seek an assistant with certain qualifications. By encoding these kinds of assertions as subject-verb-object triples we could, in theory, build a semantic web that matches seekers and finders more efficiently than the current searchable web can. But that first step was always doozy. Writing the assertions required an XML syntax which has never become a web mainstay.

There are other ways to write them, however. Using an approach called RDFa, you can embed them directly into human-readable web pages. This isn’t a new idea. A decade ago, in my book Practical Internet Groupware, I showed how CSS class attributes could do double duty within a web page, governing style while also conveying meaning. In 2003 I was still experimenting with the idea, which I then called microcontent. Nowadays the term is microformats.

Although we’ve heard plenty about this idea over the years, it has yet to bear fruit. I don’t know that it will, but the scenario Kingsley Idehen outlines strikes me as plausible because, as Dries Buytaert evocatively says, structured data is the new search engine optimization. Formerly of concern only to publishers, the rationale for search engine optimization is now becoming evident to everyone who writes an About page for their businesses or — what often comes to the same thing — for themselves.

The formula for an About page is well known: name, address, services offered, hours of operation, etc. Everyone writes this stuff once for the About page, and then again in countless variations for inclusion in various directories. Kingsley and I both hope that the time is now ripe for a web-friendly way to write this data into About pages once, for common use by human visitors, search crawlers, and syndicated directories.

His proposal relies on RDFa to encode factual assertions, and on an e-commerce ontology called GoodRelations which, as its creator Martin Hepp says, provides the vocabulary to say things like:

  • a particular Web site describes an offer to sell cellphones of a certain make and model at a certain price,
  • a pianohouse offers maintenance for pianos that weigh less than 150 kg,
  • a car rental company leases out cars of a certain make and model from a particular set of branches across the country.

The GoodRelations wiki shows cookbook examples for Yahoo and Google. You’d have to be fairly technical to adapt these using cut-and-paste, but there’s also a form that, although currently still wired to emit the older RDF/XML kinds of assertions, will soon also emit RDFa that can be woven into existing About pages.

To navigate and query a web of linked data you need, obviously, mechanisms by which to do the navigation and the querying. That’s never been the problem. Technologists love to figure such things out. But we’ve spectacularly failed to help people create that web of linked data in the first place. I don’t know if the approach Kingsley Idehen sketches in this week’s podcast will succeed. But it feels right, and I love his tagline: “Be the master of your own index.”