Category Archives: Search

The “Ratings & Reviews” model is broken. There’s a better way.


From restaurants (Yelp) to hotels (TripAdvisor) to books (Goodreads) to household goods (Amazon), the “ratings and reviews” model is everywhere. So much so that The Onion wrote a satiric article about a woman who dared to eat at a restaurant without reading the Yelp reviews.

But increasingly, the “ratings & reviews” model is perceived as broken and corrupt.

People believe reviews are manipulated on all fronts. They think businesses write bad reviews about their competitors. That businesses write good (but fake) reviews about their own businesses. That Yelp, for example, asks for money to suppress bad reviews (Yelp has been found not guilty in court). Businesses are at odds with customers over reviews: Fed-up restaurant owners fight back over Yelp reviewsYelp, Amazon and TripAdvisor wage continual warfare over bad or fake reviews: Yelp Starts Showing Evidence Of Review Fraud.

There’s a lot of money at stake based on the outcome and incentives are skewed. This isn’t lost on consumers, who are increasingly cynical about the ratings and reviews they see online.

As a result, the “ratings & reviews” method of discovery and decision making is breaking down.

It’s not just restaurants and hotels. Closer to home for The Hawaii Project, the Books world has seen a number of scandals around purchased or fake book reviews, with a number of companies in the business of getting more reviews for a book (and they’re not going to be bad reviews!).

And even if the reviews aren’t fake, there’s an even deeper issue. They just aren’t that helpful in the end. Unless I have a relationship with the reviewer, I don’t know how to evaluate their review — do they share my tastes and values? No way to tell. They may not like something, not because it’s intrinsically bad, but just because it’s not for them (in the hotel space, studies have shown that most 1-star reviews are for bad service, but that most people value location and comfort much more than “service”). In the world of books, JoJo Moyes’ book Me Before You is rated 4.3/5.0 on Goodreads, with over 215,000 ratings and 30,000 reviews. Is it a good book? Probably so. Will I like it? Probably not. But I’m sure as hell not going to read 30,000 reviews to find out!

This isn’t helpful. The ratings and reviews decision-making model is busted. Too much noise, not enough signal. It’s time to replace it with something better.

In the music world, people often discover new music by listening to the curators.Pitchfork. Rolling Stone. The Radio. Your favorite DJ. Gramaphone Magazine.Apple’s new Beats music service leans hard on Curators. There are some great curators out there in other areas. Robert Scoble for Startups. Maria Popova for intellectual ideas and books. Jason Hirschhorn for Media. Even Kanye once called himself a curator! But who has time to keep up with all that?

The additional problem with books is that the curators’ tastes often don’t agree with your own, and the volume of books is so much larger. One minute The New York Times Review of Books is reviewing ‘‘Great Men Die Twice,’ a Collection of Sports Reporting by Mark Kram’, the next they are reviewing ‘Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing’ (a study of 17th century Dutch painting). Nothing whatsoever to do with each other, and neither interesting to me, personally. Imagine trying to figure out what to read by wading through all that!

Ratings and Reviews work when there is Trust and Context. Consumer Reports is useful because I trust them to be unbiased. My friend’s review of a restaurant works, not necessarily because I share their taste, but rather I have context for their opinion. I know them and how they think and what they like. On most major review sites in any domain, either Trust or Context (or both) are missing.

There’s a better way. I call it Personalized Curation.

Imagine if every day you had time to read what all the great curators and reviewers were recommending in your areas of interest, skipping the irrelevant things and highlighting the most personally interesting to you.

Systems that perform this “Personalized Curation” for you will become the norm over the next few years. People don’t have time to ready everything — there’s an explosion of content out there. You need some kind of agent who can assimilate all of that, and bring you the relevant bits. Because of the complexity of the problem, these agents will be domain specific. Music. Books. Movies. News. Hotels. And they will be contextual and pro-active. They’ll know you’re at the airport and need a great book for the flight, and bring it to you. They’ll know your wife’s birthday is coming up and bring you some great restaurant ideas.

This is beginning to happen. You can see the beginnings of it in music with Apple Beats and Shuffler.FM. Flipboard has been nosing around this for News for some time. And at The Hawaii Project, we’re doing it for books. If you’re looking for great books read, give us a whirl!

The Hawaii Project


Europe is slowly losing it’s mind. At least, in regards Google.

Last year Europe started losing it’s collective mind when it passed the so-called right-to-be-forgotten laws. These require Google and other search engines to remove references to people who request it in search engines. Never mind the law doesn’t require original source sites to remove the information, just search engines. Never mind the outrageous violation of the principles of freedom of speech.

Then, the geniuses in Spain demanded that Google News pay for the privilege of linking to news articles in Spanish newspapers. Google responding by shutting down Google news in Spain entirely. Good for them.

Now they’re at it again. France is demanding that Google display at least three rivals on their home page. C’mon people, get real. There’s this thing called “competition”. Why should Google promote their competitor sites? The competition is FOUR LETTERS AWAY. It’s called BING. If you don’t like Google, don’t use it. Four letters.

Even worse, France is demanding Google open it’s algorithm up. I can’t imagine a worse outcome for consumers than that. Forget about it being bad for Google. It’s bad for consumers! Think Spam is bad now? Wait til the black hat SEO people, link farmers and the like know how Google fights them off.

Look, I’ve competed with Google in local search, not very successfully. Yes, they favor their own properties. Any why not? It’s their search engine to do with as they please. I see nothing wrong with it. And most of the sites who complain about it get most of their traffic from Google anyway.  Unhappy Google isn’t sending you enough traffic? Get your own traffic.

And Europe: four letters. Bing. It’s not that hard.

Some quick reactions to Trap.It

From the same place that gave birth to Siri (the cool app that functions as a personal assistant by listening to what you ask it to do) comes a new search engine called It’s pitched as a “personalized search engine”, but really functions more as a curated information recommendation engine. With, you create “traps”, which is a stream of recommendations seeded with a keyword search. The idea is that you thumbs up/thumbs down the content given to you, learns over time, and gives you better results. In concept, it feels quite similar to the now-defunct Twine, built by Nova Spivack. The particulars are very different however. It also bears some striking similarities to Flipboard, although there’s no swiping as this is a web app….

I gave it a few tricky concepts to warm up on. My first test was to get a stream of content about Vikings (the Scandinavian kind, not the football team) – no surprise, given the title of this blog. Since there are two very well defined concepts there, it’s a chance to see how well the learning engine can hone in on the concept, and not the word itself. I got a quick stream of viking stuff, half of which was about the Scandinavians and half the football team. I thumbed down about 4 articles on the Minnesota Vikings, and presto, my stream has become empty of football. Pretty impressive! The main problem now is the stream is mostly full of one news story, about climate change impacting Greenland, with many different sources recapping the same article. So while the concept disambiguation is working, they need a “story disambiguation” similar to what Google News has. I also found it awkward to get more results into the trap – there is an “infinite scroll” option, where as you scroll you get more articles, but my Viking trap could never get more than about 16 or so articles. Not sure whether this is a UI limitation, or whether their base of indexed documents simply doesn’t have more. They also need some way to delete an article from the feed, or mark it as read – the UI suggests that this is a kind of very smart RSS reader, but the basic mechanics of RSS readers are missing….once I’ve read something, I want to get it out of the way.

I tried a couple of other Traps. I’ve been on a binge of listening to “dubstep” recently, which is a trendy new sub-genre of electronic music. I got a great stream of interesting articles, and even found a new musician or two to listen to. The articles were good, but sourced from fairly random-seeming sites – is not very clear about how they curate their content sources…..I created a historical fiction trap, and immediately got an interview with Steven Pressfield, one of my favorite historical fiction authors, who has a new book out. Pretty impressive, although likely somewhat accidental? But very cool stuff. This is something to keep an eye on.

(ps – they are pretty responsive to user comments on Twitter @gotrapit – they got back to me almost immediately when I tweeted)

(they may still be in closed beta – GigaOm seems to have some invite codes at the bottom of this article)

The real problem with Quora

There’s been a blizzard of social media chatter about Quora recently. Robert Scoble loved it, then hated it. Vivek Whadwa doesn’t get it. Arrington thinks Scoble’s nuts. All of this is focused on whether or not Quora is a great blogging platform, how the voting system works, and so on.

Here’s the real problem with Quora, and why it’s going to struggle, until it solves it.

There’s no information architecture. It’s just a huge pile of unorganized content. The value in a Q&A service is the ability for people to process the answers and find useful information, or at least predict where they’re going to find this information. Hunch suffers from a similar problem – it’s hard to know which ‘Hunch’ is going to answer your question. Until Quora finds a way to put some normalization onto the questions, the pile is just going to get bigger and harder to sift through. And this normalization is a hard problem, particularly for subjective questions, which is what currently predominates in Quora. It won’t be an easy thing for them to fix. Wikipedia (to which many comparisons are made relative to Quora) has a pretty clear information architecture, and a dis-ambiguation mechanism, and it’s data model elements are primarily (simple) nouns (Places, People, Topics) – whereas Quora’s primary content are usually (complex) subjectively phrased questions.
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