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Written by Shane Neubauer


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Curation vs. Search

Is the future of online search looking bleak?

For many years, the de facto standard method for finding something online has been a search engine. Punch in your query — misspellings and all — and let the engine reach to the far corners of the Internet on your behalf, and guide you to where you want to go.

Search engines don't need much introduction here, but just in case you've been on holiday for the past two decades, here's a quick primer: A search engine is essentially a crawler that indexes everything it can find on the web, combined with a really intelligent lookup service. When you search for something, it tries to find the best match, and gives you back the results. Easy.

The problem with the regular search that we know and love, is that when the volume of content grows so large, even the list of relevant search results is too big. When this happens, what do you choose? Isn't the whole point of search to narrow down the results into something that your human brain can fathom?

So, with the growth of content, we see the steady decline of search efficacy. It's not useless by any means, but it's no longer a one-stop solution. If you know exactly what you're looking for, and you simply need an implement to find it, search is the answer. If you don't have a laser focused destination, though, you're on your own.

Curation is not that dissimilar to search. The indexing part is less robust, but the lookup service is typically much more intelligent. It's so intelligent, that it even proactively picks things that it knows you'll want to see, before you ask for it. Oh yeah, and it's performed by a person.

Placing your trust in a curator is a big deal. You're giving someone the keys to your information diet. It's a big responsibility, but popular curators take it seriously. They know that if they break your trust, they'll lose your attention, and maybe even your money. It's a delicate quid pro quo.

What do we do when the amount of curated content becomes large? Search would likely help us here, whether a traditional search engine, or something else we haven't seen yet.

Search and Curation exist along a polarity: it's an unsolvable problem that must simply be managed.

Unsolvable Problems

There's a common management concept called Polarity Management aimed at helping you navigate unsolvable problems. An unsolvable problem is something where all outcomes are necessary. You can't accept an either/or outcome.

A simple example in business is product quality vs. revenue. You can't choose one while sacrificing the other — or else neither would exist.

At any given point in time, we exist somewhere along the polarity, and our job is to try to stay as close to the centre as we can. This is the optimum balance.

What typically happens is we drift toward one side until problems arise, then our reaction is to jump way over to the other side, solving with an either/or outcome. The best reaction, however, is to accept that both will exist, and work toward an outcome where we can get the best parts of both. Where the poles complement each other.

Search grows until we reach a tipping point that even the search results page is too long to find that one thing that I need right now.

Curation solves for this, by adding a human tour guide into the mix. Humans have the ability to understand situations, people, and topics at a much deeper level than computers do (right now, at least), so they can serve as the perfect complement for finding resources.

At some point in the future, though, there will be an overwhelm of curated content too. This is where search will see another hey day.

Where are we today?

Today we're sitting nicely on the far top-right of the chart above. The amount of content on the Internet has become unwrangleable (yes, it's a new word) and we're in dire need of curation. We are already seeing curated content rising on the Internet. We're seeing an inflection happen in real time, right now.

But, there's still a long way to go, to bring the Internet back to an equilibrium.

So, is the future of online search looking bleak? No, certainly not. But, search is the hero the Internet deserves, not the one it needs right now.

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