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A Button Without The Treat

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A few months ago I wrote a post entitled +1 is Explicit, but is not Relevance Feedback.  I am often personally concerned that, with many of the posts I write, I am being pedantic.  However, last week TechCrunch came to the same conclusion: +1 Is Like A Button You Push For A Treat — Without The Treat.  Some highlights:

I understand the concept behind the +1 Button — it’s a smart one. You get people to click it and it improves the page’s search ranking for logged-in Google users with social connections (and eventually maybe all results). At least I think that’s how it works. But I have a hard time believing that all of you actually clicking on the button really get why you’re doing it.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that you’re clicking on it! I am too on some of our stories. But I can’t help but get the feeling that it’s a bit like a cruel experiment we’re running. We put up a button, you click on it because it’s there, expecting you’ll get a treat. But there is no treat.

As I was saying a few months ago, +1 allows for explicit signaling.  But that signaling just isn’t a relevance feedback-type of signaling.  The person doing the clicking doesn’t actually get anything “fed back” from that action to their ongoing information seeking task.  TechCrunch continues:

If the +1 Button is serving me up better results, I’m just not seeing it. And yes, I know the button push also populates your Google profile with a feed of our shared stories. But let’s be honest, no one is looking at those.  We’re definitely not seeing any noticeable bump in pageviews coming from Google as a result of the button. Maybe that will slowly change over time, but I’m not convinced. The rate at which people are clicking on the button appears to be dropping each day. And soon it may be just like the *gulp* Buzz button.

This echoes what I said in my previous post:

In traditional feedback, an individual user marks a subset of documents as relevant and non-relevant, and then the system updates his or her ranked list results, immediately, so as to increase the recall (and sometimes also the precision) of documents not yet seen.  There is a reason it is called feedback: the loop is closed.  Just like when you hold a microphone too close to a speaker and start to get audio feedback.  That’s only possible because the output of one input gets fed immediately back into that same input.  Not into someone else’s input.

TechCrunch concludes:

Google needs to figure this out quickly. When you push a button, you need to get a treat. People will click for a while out of pure novelty and curiousness. But that only lasts so long. Without anything noticeable happening (like a share on Twitter, or a comment on Facebook), people will just ignore the button altogether. All over the web.

What has me scratching my head is why so many web search engines — and this +1 is just one example of the larger, industry-wise attitude — are so opposed to explicit relevance feedback.  Yeah, I know the story: Altavista or Lycos tried some version of an explicit relevance feedback +1 button  for a few months back in 1996 and it was found to not work well, because users were unwilling or too lazy to put any effort into using the tool.  Well, with +1 and +1-type functionality, we’ve seen that users are indeed willing to put the effort into using the tool — at least until they find out that the tool isn’t really doing anything for them.  So why not close the loop now — quickly! — before users build a strong association in their mind that +1-type buttons do nothing for the user, especially in the moment.  An association that takes another 15 years to correct.  Give the users a treat when they press the button.  How?  Close the loop of relevance feedback.  This is an opportunity, not a criticism.




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