Looking for a Devil’s Advocate

I blog a lot about the virtues of exploratory search and the narrow-mindedness that Google and others exhibit in their focus on ranked search result lists, as well as about my skepticism about the value and longevity of the ad-supported model. I think it’s safe to say that I’m largely preaching to the converted–if anything the comments often amplify rather than challenge my premises, or even go further, arguing that I’m understating my arguments.

On one hand, it’s reassuring to hear validation for deeply held but hardly uncontroversial views. On the other hand, I’d love to find passionate advocates for the other sides of these issues who are interested in debating them. I’d like to believe I’m open-minded, even about the beliefs I hold most deeply, and in any case that I’ll offer an opposing argument a fair hearing and serious consideration. I trust that readers here would be just as fair-minded.

The problem is that those advocates don’t seem to show up, even in the comment threads. Perhaps that is because of my incredible powers of persuasion, but I imagine that no one wants to be a lightening rod for criticism, so those with opposing views lurk quietly or simply take their eyeballs elsewhere.

What to do? Is there any chance that someone who strongly disagrees with me on at least one the aforementioned points would be interested in writing a guest post? I’d even be willing to post it anonymously. I just want to make sure we’re not getting into the intellectual rut of a mutual admiration society.

Please contact me if you are interested; this is a serious offer, and I’m quite open to suggestions on how to make it work.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

62 replies on “Looking for a Devil’s Advocate”

BTW, I have no idea how well the numbers from Broder’s 2002 paper hold up today. It does irk me that Google won’t share the most basic and seemingly harmless stats about user behavior, like what fraction of their queries return Wikipedia pages as top results.


Indeed, exploratory interfaces should allow users to communicate far more precise descriptions of their information needs, which allows for much better targeted advertising.

Well, I think there are two kinds of exploration: (1) Exploration in support of your info need, when you do know essentially what you want, but want as many comparative options as possible before you make your decision, or (2) exploration in support of your searching activities, when you are not yet clear what your info need is, and just need to find out more before you come to a knowledge of what the right question even is, that you want to ask.

In case #1, I agree — ads would work. In case #2, they wouldn’t.

Which type of exploratory search do ppl do more of? I don’t know.


Actually, I could see ads working for #2 as well, if the progressive elaboration of your information need through exploration helps an advertiser not only to identify likely paths but perhaps even to influence them. By working, I mean that an advertiser would benefit, not necessarily that this is the preferred business model for information seeking services.


Oh, maybe #2 could work. But would it work, at the same level of ease with which it currently works? What I mean is, right now it is dead simple for an advertiser to target his/her audience. It’s tied to very short keyword and keyword subset matching.

Once the interaction w/ the search engine becomes more elaborate, it becomes quite unclear how you get the average Joe advertiser to be able to correctly specify when and where they want an ad to match.

So even if the business “model” is sound in case #2, that model might end up being too complex for advertisers to actually participate in.

Once again, I think that what is good for the users is bad for the advertisers. It’s an unavoidable conflict that Google does not have a handle on.


One thing this debate has missed is that people are talking about Ad supported models of search and are assuming that Google’s CPC model is the only advertising supported model that is out there. A CPM model might work in an exploratory search model. Exploring a topic in a deep web search engine such as means a fundamentally different user experience. Users stay far longer and use the search engine as a knowledge discovery tool. With that approach, a CPC model doesn’t make sense but a CPM model does.


That’s a fair point–to the extent that an exploratory search can be ad-supported, it may be more effective to present users with ambient display ads than PPC ads urging you to click and leave the site.


Yes because the experiences a fundamentally different. When I use google I am looking for an answer to a fairly specific question. Using something like or I am more interested in exploring a topic. Further more since I know the types of information and sources used in both, I am more trusting of the results than a general web search. I am sure Kosmix users on site time can be measured in minutes not seconds like Google and that’s of real value to advertisers.


Users stay far longer and use the search engine as a knowledge discovery tool. With that approach, a CPC model doesn’t make sense but a CPM model does.

But whichever model is used, CPC or CPM, the advertising that gets served has to be relevance-based. That’s Google’s fundamental premise, their core value.

So the big question in my mind becomes: Is it possible to have display, CPM advertising that remains relevant to the user information need, in an exploratory setting?

My intuition is that it is not that easy. No, that’s an understatement. My intuition is that it’s very, very difficult. And that’s part of the reason why I believe that Google refuses to do exploratory search.. not only is “organic” exploratory search difficult, but it is even more difficult to serve relevant ads against it, and therefore more difficult to make enough $$$ to justify that market cap.


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