Search, Discovery, and Transactions

All the smart people I talk to or read about, at one point or another, talk about how on the web, we are slowly shifting from search toward discovery. When I first started thinking this, things weren’t clear. Then, slowly, it started to make sense. When we search for something, such as on Google, we are signaling intent to find and retrieve specific information. In many of those cases, we end up making a purchase, too.

What about, however, when we are spending time online and we discover something, out of the blue? Depending on the timing, the context, and the item itself (whether it’s content, an idea for a trip, a song, etc.), we may be moved in that particular instant to make a purchase without ever having expressed intent.

This dichotomy became a lot clearer to me during a recent series of conversations with our good friends. A bunch of us are starting to plan a trip overseas in the middle of a specific country to spend a week in a big mansion. My friend brought up the idea and shared some pictures through Facebook. Over a decade ago, her friend from college stayed in this house and the owners who tended the property then still own the house. She said they were incredible and the property is amazing. Our friend wants us to go for a week next year and experience this place. Sounds great to me.

Like an idiot, however, I chimed back with some explanation of how more properties are going to be online now, such as with Airbnb, etc. She was interested in that. So I explained a bit more about how more properties are coming online now and that we could say anywhere. She entertained the thought for a few minutes as we conversed, but after a little while said something like this:

“You know, now that I think about it, my friend’s recommendation is just really strong. Even though she went there a decade ago, she still talks about the place and the owners. I could look online for another place, but how I will know it will be as good? I don’t really have the time or energy for it, to be honest. I just want to go somewhere with all of us and know it will be great.”

Wow. Powerful. We are collectively going to make an expensive purchase based entirely on one recommendation of one person that only is connected to 1 out of the 10 people that will go. That kind of signal is much stronger than any intent we could have entered into Google, yet yielded an enormous transaction.

As my friend “discovered” this place through word of mouth, I believe strongly that for many purchases, we will grow a bit tired of intent-based search. There were will be too many choices, too much noise, too many unappealing web pages, or tastes based on aggregated data — not close knit recommendations. I also believe that systems are coming into place whereby we can have the same discovery experiences online, such as through sites like Everlane, Pinterest, and Twitter, for example, just to name a few.

In “discovery,” all you really need is one friend whom you trust and/or admire to signal something to you — about what they own, what they want, what they’ve heard is good, and so forth, that could completely influence your own purchasing decisions. That is a simple yet powerful concept and, now that the thought is forming in my head, I’ll start to spend more time actively thinking about what companies and concepts are most interesting in the space.