Musings on Business and Tech

Category — search

Minimizing Agony, Maximizing Pageviews

On Wednesday at the Launch Conference, travel search engine Hipmunk presented a new mobile version of their web app. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Hipmunk’s general approach to solving the problem of airfare search, and how it might be applied to other problems.

The genius of Hipmunk is in their “agony” algorithm, grounded in the key insight that when people search for airfares, price and departure time are rarely the only considerations. What people really want to know is how agonizing the trip will be, measured as a combination of price, duration, and number of layovers. So Hipmunk sorts your search results by this “agony” score (in descending order of course). Simple. Brilliant. There’s so much agony in the world; what else could this model be applied to?

The first thing that jumps to mind is turn-by-turn directions. Most navigation apps provide routes that optimize for distance or time, and in some cases by real-time traffic patterns. But there are a lot of other factors than can contribute to one’s agony while driving. For instance, given the choice, I’d much rather drive a scenic route than an interstate, but likely only if the scenic route isn’t orders of magnitude more time-consuming. Or maybe I’d like to drive a route with better food options than Shoney’s and Roy Rogers. Transit directions could also benefit from applying this model. I’d much rather take a trip that involved a transfer if the two subways were less crowded than the one, provided the trip duration wasn’t significantly longer.

Another great application of the “agony” model would be a site that helped you decide whether or not buy something online or at a nearby store. The algorithm could factor in a combination of item cost, shipping cost, shipping duration and return policy of the online option, and compare it to the item cost and travel distance to a local store that carries the item, as well as the real-time availability of that item in the store’s inventory ( is working on this last problem).

Sorting by “agony” factor is a powerful idea, and one that is quickly letting Hipmunk soar to the top of the travel search business. What other problems could you apply this model to?

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February 25, 2011   No Comments

Facebook Passes Google. So What?

On Monday Hitwise announced that “for the week ending March 13, 2010, [Facebook] surpassed Google in the US to become the most visited website for the week.”

This is certainly big news, but not as big as you’d think from reading the tech blogs. Some are saying that this is the triumph of the social web, the turning point at which more people began using the web for interaction rather than inquiry.

I say bollocks. The internet has always been about both social networking and search (and the union of the two). Ever since the days of bulletin boards and IRC, people have been doing some form of “social networking” on the internet. It certainly wasn’t mainstream back then, and I’ll grant you that Facebook is a lot more compelling of an application than IRC, but this isn’t a turning point as much as an equilibrium.

It’s also not a story about the decline of Google. People will always need a way to find things on the web, and although Bing is a worthy competitor in that arena, the game is still Google’s to lose.

Via Hitwise Intelligence – Heather Dougherty – North America.

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March 18, 2010   No Comments

911 For the 21st Century

A couple days ago, ReadWriteWeb reported on a new Twitter hashtag syntax for people to use in emergencies, a syntax that would make it easier for computers to “automatically extract data about locations or the status of a road or person.”

For instance, a tweet requesting security at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince might look something like this: “#haiti #need security #loc General Hospital PAP #contact @thehatian”.

So what would be really cool (and I’m sure someone will do this before too long) would be to build a mobile web app that would, with a minimum of user input, build tweets for you using this syntax. The interface would contain only a handful of really large buttons, set against a very bright background (so the phone can double as a flashlight of course). The app could use the phone’s GPS to geotag the tweet. Sending out a mobile S.O.S. would be as easy as pushing a two or three buttons.

On the other end, of course, fire, police and emergency medical departments could monitor these tweets using Twitter’s search or some other Twitter search client (perhaps one that could plot these tweets realtime on a map). They would then be much better able to get help where it’s needed the most. It’s 911 for the 21st century!

I am continually amazed by the extent to which technology continues to improve our lives in so many ways.

Read Tweak the Tweet: New Twitter Hashtag Syntax for Sharing Information During Catastrophes.

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January 21, 2010   No Comments

How Google Does Synonyms

Fascinating post over at the Official Google Blog about how their search engine deals with synonyms. One of the more interesting points is about how they deal with “bad” synonyms:

An example of a bad synonym…is in the search [dell system speaker driver precision 360], where Google thinks “pc” is a synonym for precision. Note that you can still see that on Google today, because while we know it’s a bad synonym, we don’t typically fix bad synonyms by hand. Instead, we try to discover general improvements to our algorithms to fix the problems. We hope it will be fixed automatically in some future changes.

I infer from this that Google doesn’t typically fix any bad search results by hand. They would much rather fix the underlying algorithm than hard code a bunch of corner cases. In fact they’d so much rather do that, that the best they can say in this situation is that they “hope it will be fixed” someday soon!

At first glance you might think that Google makes this choice because it’s right architecturally–because it’s cleaner and easier maintain. But I think the bigger reason is that Google cannot be seen to be tipping its hand.

If Google were to manually fix the PC/precision synonym for instance, people could potentially argue that they are unfairly favoring Dell’s search results over any others. But as long as they can always fall back on the “it’s the algorithm” defense, Google’s results can be seen as more impartial and therefore more relevant.

And, indeed, this is the fundamental asset that Google owns: your confidence in the impartiality and relevance of its search results.

Read Official Google Blog: Helping computers understand language.

January 20, 2010   No Comments