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Beyond Intent

Intent, hidden within a search click, lies at the intersection of Search and Business, as in “let’s do some business”. That search click has extra-ordinary value because of the intent to buy — that’s why we’re searching, right?

Perhaps, or maybe we’re just browsing, or surfing, and we’re not in the mood for advertisements. It could be more militant than that; perhaps we’re still trying to research our choices and would see a sales pitch as tainting the honesty of the information. At least that’s what the founders of Google originally believed.

Although the model of the web was a set of stateless pages, and a Google search box certainly fits that appearance, people’s intent is not stateless. It ebbs and flows, from entertaining looking around, to researching choices and comparing possibilities, through sourcing a chosen product (now we’re talking about a qualified buyer), to selecting fulfillment options, and possibly all the way to figuring out how to return a product that we’re dissatisfied with. That last one is probably not the best time to present an ad claiming how wonderful that product is.

This is a “long running transaction,” a series of steps that fit together and flow towards (and past) a purchasing decision, but with back-currents and eddies. And it really is a transaction in the database sense where a failure during one step can cause the entire sequence to be discarded as if it never happened. Though if you believe Sergey and Larry, it will be worse than never happening, you may lose trust in your guide through that transaction.

Has the intent changed? Depends on what that means. On one hand, what has changed across those steps is the mode of the intent. If the intent was to purchase a product, then the research, comparison, purchase, and fulfillment were clearly pieces of that intent, though they call for different approaches: organic search for the research, product focused responses for the purchase, perhaps service-oriented for the fulfillment, and some combination for the comparison.

But what about that “I need to return this product because I hate it” step? The intent has clearly changed, but it is more necessary than ever to connect this new intent to the previous steps. If not, perhaps the search engine will continue to suggest that product to a disgruntled customer with very counter-productive results.

So, what is the unifying concept? Is it intent, organized by modes? Not if what is being unified is a complete user’s story about their purchasing experience.

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2 Comments

  1. Gilbane Group Blog

    Welcome Fred Dalrymple

    Fred is our newest contributor, and has already posted his first blog entry. Fred pokes at the challenging tension in search between intent and context, especially over time as context (or intent) changes. Lynda has also posted about intent, and…

  2. Daniel Tunkelang

    Fred, good to see you here at the Gilbane blog!
    I think you raise a point that represents a critical divide between the systems-oriented information retrieval (IR) community and the user-oriented library and information science (LIS or IS) community. Tefko Saracevic covers it nicely in a lecture on the history of relevance, and you can find more details here.
    My take is that search engines aren’t and shouldn’t try to be mind readers. Even people aren’t mind readers. The job of an information seeking tool is not so much to guess your intent as to help you express it.

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