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Jim Rapoza
Jim Rapoza
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The Autonomy of Google And Facebook Services

At last week's TechCrunch Disrupt, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg both touted a new technology that will be key to the growth of both companies. This technology is autonomous search, which lets sites and services know what you're looking for before you even search for it.

At last week's TechCrunch Disrupt, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg both touted a new technology that will be key to the growth of both companies. This technology is autonomous search, which lets sites and services know what you're looking for before you even search for it.This technology could greatly improve the efficiency and accuracy of content and product discovery for both Google and Facebook as well as their many partners. And it could pay even bigger dividends in potential new and more focused advertising and marketing efforts. But how much value it provides for regular web users remains to be seen.

For those of you who haven't heard the recent discussions from Google and Facebook about autonomous search, it is essentially the holy grail of personalized search and site services. In an autonomous world, services build profiles based on everything you do and that they know about you; your locations, the things you talk about on forums and social networks, the sites you visit regularly, the things you purchase, basically all of your online activities.

And based on this information, sites can deliver suggested content to you without a search being initiated, build dynamic and highly personalized web sites and ecommerce stores, even push out invitations to purchase goods.

This last capability is especially attractive in the mobile world. A typical example given by proponents of autonomous services is walking down the street and getting pinged by your mobile device that there is a highly rated sushi restaurant nearby, given that its lunchtime and your profile says that you're a full-on sushi fanatic.

If you're in an audience where someone describes this scenario you typically see two reactions. The people involved in sales, advertising and marketing nod their heads, smile and generally have a "that sounds fantastic!" look on their face.

Meanwhile the regular user types in the crowd, basically everyone else, have a kind of queasy, slightly befuddled look that seems to be saying, "that sounds kind of cool but it could also be really annoying and creepy."

There is a reason for these differing reactions. It's because autonomous services are really designed mainly for the benefit of sales and advertising. As a business, you'd love to be able to identify every visitor, both virtual and real-world, who is a regular consumer of your goods.

But as a consumer, while there are benefits to autonomous services, there are also drawbacks. Sure, it's nice to find out about businesses and services that you might not know about. But how will the service know if I've already been to that sushi restaurant it's pushing on me? Am I going to get bugged about lots of places that I already know about?

And what about the personalized sites and services? Some level of personalization is always welcome. I definitely like it when sites take advantage of my location information to improve search and sales options. But if all sites start to gear around the things I normally buy and talk about, then many sites will start to look the same to me.

Some people refer to autonomous services as serendipity engines, which to me seems strange as I think in many ways they are designed to prevent serendipity.

It isn't serendipity to know someone is a sushi fanatic and tell them there's a nearby sushi restaurant. Because while that engine is pushing sushi restaurants at me, little does it know that it has been a couple of years since I've had good barbecue and that's what I'm craving now, even though nothing in my profile says I like barbecue at all. So too bad I just walked by a great barbecue restaurant that the autonomous services failed to tell me about.

We can all think of situations where a friend or loved one that we know very well (really better than any current autonomous engine could claim to know) ended up liking something that was really surprising. For example, I have several friends who hated science fiction and didn't like to watch television shows who ended up addicted to Battlestar Galactica.

I guess it is possible that autonomous engines could someday become advanced enough to know what you want despite all outward activities and appearances but I don't think that day is anywhere near. So for the most part they will just be telling us about the things that we already know we want.

But sometimes want we want is the last thing anyone, whether a friend or autonomous search service, would think we want. And personally, I'd like to have the autonomy to be truly surprised.

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