A Long Tail and a Paradox

grocery store

Photo courtesy of I-5 Design & Manufacture

Over Christmas break, I had the chance to catch up on a lot of reading. One of the books that's been on my list of "yeah, I know I need to read that" was The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.

The book's been out since 2006, so I was actually able to skim through most of it. Many of the ideas author Chris Anderson presented have simply become par for the course, both in search engine optimization and in e-commerce. In fact, I'd felt I had already gleaned as much from it as I could when I came across a passage where he compared his findings to those of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (affiliate link).

One of the key examples in The Paradox of Choice is of a grocery store aisle stocking a crazy number of jelly types. Everything is lined up neatly in little rows, and you now have the choice between something like forty types of jam. Some of those jars are going to be the same flavor, just different brands. Some of those jars are flavors you've never tried before.

Point being, you've got a lot of choices.

And The Paradox of Choice argues that it's too much. We lose a lot of time and cause ourselves undue stress by giving ourselves too many options all of the time. (I'm really looking forward to digging into this book more.)

From the Grocery Store to Online Commerce

The aisles of your local grocery store and your favorite e-retailer are rather different, though. Here's what Anderson had to say, "Online, however, the consumer has a lot more help. There are a nearly infinite number of techniques to tap the latent information in a marketplace and make that selection process easier."

He goes on in the book to describe how filters (which we expect in online transactions today) like price, type, bestsellers, etc. all help reduce the decision-making energy we have to use in order to find the jelly we're actually looking for. It's not a perfect system. There are still lots of choices that consumers have to wade through, but the point is that the journey has a guide now.

In a mainstream grocery store here in the United States, you're not likely to find an employee overly knowledgeable about jelly and which brand you might like most.

Providing Guides for the Journey

All of this so far makes sense. If we're not consciously aware of it, we've still come to expect online and offline transactions to happen in a particular way.

But, are we providing guides for the journey? Whether you're an artist, a blogger, or a retailer, are you providing simpler ways for people to be able to find what they need? Because, if not, they'll leave.

I'm really into indie art. From music to movies and books, I love finding what's happening on the fringes of creative styles, and I've been able to find pieces of art that I genuinely admire in this manner. Utilizing that same "bubble of preferences," I'm guided through the journey of finding what I'm looking for. Last week, I wrote about how we can get stuck in the filters and miss out on the real world, but we can also miss out on what we're actually looking for.

In Long Tail, Anderson provided a number of examples of e-retailers who had heavily promoted indie music and movies without including any of the mainstream material. Several of these sites did not make it because visitors could not find any comparison points. Instead of just trying to tell readers what bands to try, these sites could have made much more headway with recommendation based on purchasing history.

The fact is, we need the filters. There's simply too much information out there to be able to handle it without some way of dialing it back. Those filters can be ones you create like the personal curation from my buddy Joel at The Value of Simple, or they can come from e-retailers like Amazon, or they can even come from specialized blogs from technology-experts like Wired to humor / cool stuff sites like Laughing Squid.

What about You?

Can you think of recent experiences where you saw a mountain of unfiltered choices and simply decided not to pick anything?