Search vs. Discovery

Like Steve Rubel, I missed Kevin Hale’s essay The Importance of RSS when it was published a month ago. In it, Kevin provides an in-depth hypothesis on Google’s perspective of RSS.

A few excerpts follow, but the entire essay is well worth the read,

“I don’t think Google really feels threatened (or has ever felt threatened) by portal strategy. I think what they’re afraid of is the rise of applications that seem to be tracking importance and trends better than search. In the race to find what deserves face-time, services like del.icio.us, Technorati and Digg.com in combination with the rapid adoption of web apps like bloglines, newsgator, feedster and kinja are making Google’s search seem very, very slow. And it’s all being accomplished with RSS technology.

But what’s Google’s plan for RSS? Well, the thing is Google’s been working on an RSS strategy for a long time now. Matt Mullenweg and a host of other savvy / obsessive stat watchers have noticed Google’s bots have been searching for the location of index.rdf and atom.xml since at least April of 2004.

This preemptive crawling, I believe, will be the basis of their own version of a tagging system that replaces search terms for tags.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about the notion that Web 2.0 technologies are threatening search. But I think we need to be careful about describing what aspect of search is vulnerable and why. In its purest form, I view “search” as looking for something which I know I am looking for. By subtle contrast, I would call “discovery” looking for something which I don’t know I am looking for. I’ve alluded to this distinction before, and I am sure others have more articulately expressed it as well.

The importance of the difference is the ramification of new approaches to “looking for” information. With “search” in its strictly defined form, RSS adds the component of timeliness to relevance and cardinality/page-rank in determining the most appropriate ordering of results. However, I don’t think it RSS fundamentally changes the way that people look for information that they know they want; it just adds another dimension. On the other hand, when I want to find information which I don’t know I am looking for, there are now an in increasing number of possibilities: tagging systems like del.icio.us, personalized RSS feeds from Findory, and even merely reading others’ blogs.

The difficulty for “traditional” players like Google isn’t that search is going to be replaced by alternatives, but that the line between search and discovery is often barely noticeable. No, classifying “finding something” as search or discovery isn’t a binary proposition, but rather placing it along a gradual spectrum that exists between the two. In this fuzzy grey area lies both the opportunity for new alternative approach startups, but also the power for Google to merely extend its current offering. In his conclusion Kevin Hale is right, “I think RSS has a very promising future and Google is going to make sure they do everything in their power to be the ones to usher it in.”

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by About.com where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.

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