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Look Beyond the First Result

By Steve Jones,

This story about Orbitz was very interesting in the way metadata about users was affects the results of queries on the Orbitz site. It's slightly skewed to imply Orbitz was charging OSX users more than Windows users, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Instead, if an OSX user was detected, the order of search results was changed to show more expensive options first. Users were understandably upset, as some of them ended up paying more for services than they might have otherwise.

However is this a valid way to present the data? From the business side of things, this makes sense. If you identify a trend, you may look to exploit it or incorporate the potential results into your decision making. I could even see some sort of business intelligence system making this decisions automatically, without human intervention. As we build more sophisticated software, using a large set of inputs, I could see exactly this type of thing occurring more frequently.

Is it fair? Is it moral? Those are tough questions. We often want to go where the data leads us, and while many of our human tendencies don't make any sense, the data sometimes shows patterns in our behavior. In the end, I'd argue this was a very poor model of the data. All Mac users aren't looking to spend more money on goods or services just because they might have purchased a more expensive computer. There are likely quite a few other qualifications inputs that should be considered as well.

Steve Jones


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