Time for search engines to step up

By Peter Ballard @Ballyfool

There’s a lot of very good published research on the subject of human decision making, and especially the mess we appear to get ourselves in when faced with too much choice.

In Sheena Iyengar’s book “The Art of Choosing” she describes a test set up in a supermarket, where a kiosk was offering Jam tasting samples to customers. It turned out that customers were far more likely to buy at least one Jam when only six variants were offered, than when the tasting range included 24 varieties.

It’s all tied up with the fear of making a bad decision. The more options you have, the more likely you are NOT to find the ‘best’ choice for you. This is even more true if your time to assess the options available is limited.

I recently planned a family break and it seemed that the more information that I was able to find, and the more choices of villa/cottage/hotel/apartment that I was offered, the harder it was to make a decision and the more stress it caused.

I wanted to go to a Greek island, in a two or three bed villa, near to a beach. At holiday-rentals.co.uk, there are 162 villas that meet those conditions. There was no way that I could read the descriptions of all of those, so I found myself shortlisting properties on purely subjective or instinctive grounds – a first impression from the single picture included in the search results, or deciding I didn’t like the name! But I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe I was missing a hidden gem somewhere in those discarded options.

The problem does seem to be particularly relevant to travel, where the perceived risk of making a bad decision is high. Consumer reviews in some cases add to the problem, with both negative and positive reviews existing for the same place, you find yourself having to scan all of the available reviews to decide on what the ‘trend’ is.

So when is a search engine going to be able to do this job for me? I want a search engine to know me like a friend does, and know its holiday destinations like a good travel agent does, and be able to match the two;“Peter, you should go here, you’ll absolutely love it, and this place is perfect for the kids”.

I’m sure there are brainy folk shut away in Palo Alto right now coming up with that, but in the meantime I am sure we will see more and more people reaching out to their social networks, trusting their friends to make recommendations that limit our choices rather than expand them.

P.S. I finally got my Corfu villa by visiting a small online travel agent - where I only needed to compare 8 properties to find ‘the best one’ for me.

Peter Ballard

I co-founded Foolproof with Tom Wood back in 2002. Today I work across a range of clients, particularly in the roles of Experience Planner and Client Partner. In my role as Experience Planner, I ensure that our design teams have access to the right insight to respond appropriately to the business and creative challenges faced by our clients.

View Peter's profile

What do you think?