Search and Simplicity: The Silver Bullets of the Internet

I want to try something slightly different today, and go ‘off-topic’ with some content that more fits the Credit Writedowns blog of yore, when I covered a much wider range of topics. And so, this post is going to be about technology, specifically Internet technology. And I’ll try to mix in some pop psychology to boot in order to spice it up. I won’t post like this often. But, even so, let me know if you find these kinds of things interesting.

Here goes

Some Pop Psychology Musings

I want to start the Internet discussion with the concept of choice overload. Wikipedia defines choice overload this way:

Overchoice or choice overload is a cognitive process in which people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options. The term was first introduced by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, Future Shock.

The gist is that people like choice because choice gives one a sense of ‘agency’ or freedom. But, if you offer people too many choices, the ability to select the ‘best’ choice becomes overwhelming. So people either ‘go with what they know’ or shut down entirely. Brand marketers know this. And that’s why brand is so valuable. GEICO is on TV with silly auto insurance commercials for exactly this reason; when presented with 100 different auto policies, not knowing which one is ‘best’, consumers may just choose GEICO because they are familiar with the brand.

In other instances, people may become so overwhelmed with choice, they simply walk away.

That’s the current thinking. But there is pushback on this. For example, a Stanford researcher disputes this framing. And the argument was written up at the Stanford Business School website back in 2016. Here’s the takeaway from that piece for me though:

If a person begins the process by weighing whether to buy at all, a large selection is likely to be attractive and make him or her more likely to decide in favor of buying. If, however, a person begins by picking a favorite from an assortment of options, and only then deciding whether to buy, a large selection makes the task harder and lowers the likelihood of buying.


“Every decision is really two decisions,” Simonson says. “If your first decision is about whether you want to buy, then having more options is conducive to buying. But if your first decision is on which specific product to select, then having a big assortment can make it more difficult to identify the best option.”

My takeaway: If a person is committed to a transaction, she will not be turned off by a greater selection of alternatives. She may actually like that. But if she is not committed to a specific transaction in the first place, she may give up when overwhelmed by selection.  Notice though, that commitment to the transaction doesn’t infer that she herself makes the ultimate selection. She may employ an advisor to find the best choice instead. It just means that she will make a choice one way or another.

This is the market that financial advice thrives in because the complexity and the overwhelming numbers of choices can make financial planning overwhelming. But, for most people, financial planning is a necessity if they want to have a nest egg that allows them to live comfortably after they stop working for money.

Amazon Search

I was thinking about this in the context of Amazon and Internet Search and decided to write this up. Back in 2011, I was writing a lot more about technology and the Internet because I had more recently been at a technology company, Yahoo through 2003. And so, when I wrote about a piece about “Desperately Seeking Search“, it was a lot more in my wheelhouse than it is now.

But, the thinking from that article still informs my thinking today. Put simply, Search is king. The Internet is a complex and chaotic place, the ultimate playground for overchoice. And, any company that can simplify that world into a highly usable and relevant rank order is going to do well because that’s what people want. In fact, that’s what people need.  As with financial planning, I would argue that Internet Search is a must have. There is no person who regularly uses the Internet that can get by without Search. And today, there are few people in the developed world that can get by without the Internet.

Here’s the thing. Search isn’t just the domain of Internet-wide search engines like Google or DuckDuckGo. It is an integral part of every experience on the Internet, including searching for shows on Netflix, looking for sports scores on ESPN or trying to find products on Amazon.

Now, in 2011, I was writing about Google’s declining search usability. I never said Google would be supplanted though. That’s because Google is as close to a monopoly in Search as Microsoft was in Operating Systems in the 1990s and IBM was back in the 1980s. I just felt, as someone who saw Yahoo’s curation approach to search as flawed, that Google was losing some of its lustre as a best of breed search engine. But, they have since addressed some of those problems.

Amazon is best of breed in consumer product search. And that owes to several reasons. First, they have a lot of products to choose from. They are the largest marketplace for consumer products on the Internet. What’s more is that consumers know this. And so, many people go to Amazon to search for consumer goods the way they go to Google to search the Internet.

And that means Amazon has more information with which to create better search results like Google does in Internet Search. And it also has the ability to favor its own products or change prices to make its products more appealing in search. Google can only respond by favoring its products and offerings, which has won it antitrust scrutiny. Amazon can change prices both based on search on Amazon and Amazon’s crawling competitors’ sites. That’s a huge advantage.

But, here’s a hidden advantage I have noticed a lot on Amazon. Whenever I search Amazon’s website for a specific brand and product that they ultimately fail to offer, Amazon not only offers up relevant search results on their site, they do so by pre-populating the search for that product as I type. Amazon is so large that people come to their site for products they don’t have. And Amazon, knowing they don’t have those products, not only offers searchers the best matching products Amazon does sell, it also cues the searcher to finish the search by pre-populating the search for the product Amazon does not sell.

That’s a huge benefit to Amazon when people are committed to a transaction.

Search and Simplicity

All of this leads me back to the psychology though.

The Internet is overwhelming. And within the Internet, purchasing consumer goods on the Internet can be overwhelming too. Search fixes that. The reason Google mints money is for exactly this reason. It simplifies and clarifies by boiling the Internet down into a rank order of internet pages for anything under the sun you want to search for. And while their rank order results aren’t always good (and can be manipulated), they are good enough that Google eventually won and now maintains near-monopoly in the Search (irrespective of how good the search now is).

Amazon has the same ability that Google does for consumer goods – and not just because Amazon has the largest selection of consumer goods, but also because Amazon has the best ranked order search of consumer goods in the world. And Amazon can make that rank order effective for specific goods that it doesn’t even sell. No wonder Amazon is minting money in this pandemic. If everyone is sitting at home buying stuff on the Internet, they are even more likely to buy it at Amazon because Amazon’s search is second to none in the consumer space.

Taking the learnings from Google and Amazon, a step further, I would apply that en masse to any industry or business segment on the Internet. First, if you don’t have good search, your business is vulnerable to a competitor that does. Second, if you want to get big on the Internet fast, you need to have good Search. The Internet is a confusing and cacophonous Wild West. And so, while people like choice, in that environment, choice can be overwhelming. So, quite often, on the Internet, people crave simplicity. Good search gives you that.

My take: If you want to know who the winners and losers on the Internet will be 5 or 10 years down the line, look and see how good their search engine is. That will tell you a lot about where they’re headed.

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