Lists are the new search

I've become rather fascinated by all the people trying to unbundle Yelp for restaurants. People trying to unbundle Craigslist do so with modern UX, but Yelp is a modern company with modern UX, and the people unbundling it, mostly, use constraint. Instead of offering 500 or 1000 restaurants and a search box, they give you a list - 50, or 10, or even 1. Sometimes this is deliberate and sometimes it flows from the business model, but the result is the same - they remove the 'tyranny of choice'. I don't want 500 options for restaurants, all of which I'd like - I want five.

You can see much the same thing in fashion. Now that the flash sales model has receded somewhat, the strategy for a lot of online fashion and luxury good offerings is, again, constraint - curation, or, one could say, a list. Show me 10 bags, not every SKU currently under production in the entire global apparel industry.

Showing every SKU, of course, is exactly the Amazon approach - 'the everything store', and it works well for some categories, and especially when you know exactly what you want. But knowing what you want is not necessarily the starting point - that's what needs to happen along the funnel. Amazon's relative weakness at curation, discovery and recommendation (I've seen data suggesting the recommendation platform is only 1/4 of its books sales) is, I think, a big reason why, after 25 years of ruthless and relentless execution, it's still only got to 25% of the print books market in the UK and USA. A bookshop (or any shop) is, yes, the end-point to a logistics system, but a good bookshop is primarily a discovery platform. That is, it's more about the tables than the shelves. And the tables are lists, not inventory. 

The problem with using a list instead of a searchable database is how you get to scale - or perhaps, what kind of scale you can have. So, Yahoo's hierarchical directory (a list of lists) got to 3.2m entries before collapsing under its own weight - it was too big to be browsed, and reached the point that only search made sense (and Google did better search). But if the list is shorter (that is, more aggressively curated as opposed to just compiled and catalogued), then who's doing the curation, and more importantly, how do you find the list in the first place? 

Hence, I always thought the most appealing part of Flipboard was the manually curated directory of sites to follow. It's a list of lists, but it isn't trying to encompass everything, and so, unlike Yahoo, it isn't unmanageably big. But that just relocates the problem - what if you want a list that isn't on the list of lists? If you wanted to find 5 new sites to read about a topic you care about - ice-climbing, or vintage furniture, or experimental electronic music, or children's picture books - where would you find it? Can you create a platform for all those lists without turning into Yahoo? And it's worth remembering that Google hasn't actually solved this either - it might give you one blog post, but not a list of 20 sites to try. (Indeed, one could suggest that blogs themselves break Google in some sense - you're looking for a stream, but Google can only give you the post.) 

Apple Music and Spotify both have an angle on this; they both make the observation that 30m tracks and a search engine is a poor experience, and that you need some form of filter, based in some way on your preferences, but ultimately arbitrary all the same.  Apple's model in particular is interesting because it's a hybrid - it uses automation to match manually curated playlists (again, lists) with (mostly) algorithmically-determined tastes. So the list is made by hand, but the machine finds the list for you. 

Equally, with Facebook, you make your friend list by hand, and you and your friends share things into that pool manually, but the Facebook algorithm automatically suggests stories for you from that pool - again, a hybrid. Indeed, one could suggest that you don't actually need to know any of those people for the system to work - 'these are things that people in a sample of 300 people in your rough socio-economic demographic clicked on'.

Something that sits in the back of my mind when thinking about this is that department stores and supermarkets, the Amazons of their days, didn't kill small retail. They were not winner-takes-all models. They did kill people who couldn't match their service, selection and price, and were simply end-points to a logistics chain out-competed by a more efficient end-point. But one thing I saw growing up in South London as supermarkets deployed was that small food shops tended to disappear, and then re-appear in new incarnations, providing service, curation and selection that supermarkets themselves couldn't match, for people willing to search them out and of course pay the premium, and where there was the density to support this. They didn't scale - they didn't turn into chains of 30 artisanal butchers - but they often prospered. One saw something similar with bookshops: Waterstones put many out of business, but many also got created (just before Amazon took 25% off the top of the market, of course). 

This in turn reminds me of a story in the New York Times, many years ago, about small Japanese shops who wanted only word-of-mouth customers and so made themselves hard to find (even by Japanese standards). In particular, there was one denim shop in a back-alley of Tokyo called 'Not Found' - so as to be ungooglable. One can call this curation, or hipsterdom, or just a Veblen good. But in the past, such things were always geographically constrained - you had to live in a big city (while chain retail took homogenized versions of the same thing to everyone). I wonder, as ecommerce matures, how much will be carved out into exactly the kind of spectrum of large and small retail beyond the big aggregators, and how far this removal of geographic constraint might make it easier rather than harder for them to take sales from the giants, in part by removing that density problem. That is, there might be a lot more lists, they might be hard to find, and not be part of some global aggregator, and that might be OK.