My first experience with recommendation engines was with Amazon in its early days. Then, when you bought a book, Amazon would tell you that people who bought the same book had also bought these other books. It was simple, brilliant, and most importantly, it worked. When Amazon later started selling CDs, the recommendation engine worked even better. I got to enjoy music I never knew existed, and Amazon sold more CDs. It’s a classic win-win, and you would think Amazon would put its substantial resources into making its recommendations even better. 

But apparently not. After buying an introductory book on Photoshop a while back, the recommendation engine started showing me every Photoshop book ever written (there appear to be hundreds of them), and crowded out every other book recommendation for nearly a year. These were lazy recommendations, and disproportionate to the one book I bought – ever – on a specific topic. And Amazon recommendations have gotten even lazier since then.

You may also recall the Netflix Prize, announced with great fanfare back in 2008. A $1 million prize was given to anyone who could improve the efficacy of the Netflix recommendation engine. It was an impressive commitment by Netflix, and it showed they deeply understood the importance and value of recommendations to their business. Fast forward to today. Having watched every single episode of Arrested Development on Netflix, how did I learn about the arrival of new episodes? I read about it in the newspaper. Has Netflix brought these new episodes to my attention? Not yet. Somewhere along the way, Netflix seems to have stopped caring about the quality of its customer recommendations.

Move over to the search engines – all of them. You may know that you can force a search engine to search for a specific phrase by putting quote marks around it. Typically, your first search results will be web pages containing that exact phrase. But then the search engines actually remove the quote marks and toss in results that have the requested search terms, but not necessarily together. Then they toss in pages that have some but not all of your search terms. Since I didn’t ask for these search results, I think it’s fair to consider them as recommendations. And they are (predictably) lousy. It’s as if the search engines assume I don’t know what I am doing, so they give me every possible type of result. Yes, more is better with search engines, but only if they are giving me more of what I want. 

Contrast this with the music service Pandora that I’ve been raving about since 2007. Despite a tough revenue model, Pandora has not forgotten that it lives and dies by the quality of its recommendations, and it’s built to over $1 billion in annual revenue by staying focused. Hopefully they'l maintain that focus as it continues to grow.

When companies get big, it’s very easy for them to get distracted and lose interest in what made them big in the first place. There are more voices now saying that Google search quality is in decline. And remember when Yahoo got bored with search and decided to outsource search while it chased bigger dreams? These distractions create opportunities for smaller players to do search better, and some are finding success.