Arise Ye Databases of Intention

In what counts as one of my favourite business books (“The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture), John Battelle sets the scene with a chapter entitled “The Database of Intentions”.

The Database of Intentions is simply this.: the aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result.

(Also described in this blog post: Database of Intentions).

The phrase “the database of intentions” is a powerful one; but whilst I don’t necessarily agree with the above definition any more (and I suspect Battelle’s thinking about his own definition of this term may also have moved on since then) I do think that the web’s ability to capture intentional data is being operationalised in a far more literal form than even search histories reveal.

Here’s something I remarked to myself on this topic a couple of days ago, following a particular Google announcement:

The announcement was this one: New in Labs: Tasks and it describes the release of a Task list (i.e. a to do list) into the Google Mail environment.

As Simon PErry notes in hos post on the topic (“Google Tasks: Gold Dust Info For Advertisers).

It’s highly arguable that no piece of information could be more valuable to Google that what your plans / tasks / desire are.

In the world of services driven by advertising in exchange for online services, this stuff is gold dust.

We’d imagine that Google will be smart enough not to place ads related to your todo list directly next to the list, as that could well freak people out. Don’t forget that as soon as Google know this info about you, they can place the adverts where ever and when ever they feel like.

“Don’t forget that as soon as Google know this info about you, they can place the adverts where ever and when ever they feel like.”… Visit 10 web pages that run advertising, and I would bet that close to the majority are running Google Adsense.

Now I know everybody knows this, but I suspect most people don’t…

How does Google use cookies to serve ads?
A cookie is a snippet of text that is sent from a website’s servers and stored on a web browser. Like most websites and search engines, Google uses cookies in order to provide a better user experience and to serve relevant ads. Cookies are set based on your viewing of web pages in Google’s content network and do not contain any information that can identify you personally. This information helps Google deliver ads that are relevant to your interests, control the number of times you see a given ad, and measure the effectiveness of ad campaigns. Anyone who prefers not to see ads with this level of customization can opt out of advertising cookies. This opt-out will be specific only to the browser that you are using when you click the “opt out” button. [Advertising Privacy FAQ]

Now I’m guessing that “your viewing of web pages in Google’s content network” includes viewing pages in GMail, pages which might include your “to do” list… So a consequence of adding an item to your Task list might be an advert that Google serves to you next time you do a search on Google or visit a site running Google Ads.

Here’s another way of thinking about those ads: as predictive searches. Google knows what you intend to do from your “to do” list, so in principle it can look at what people with similar “to do” items search for, and serve the most common of these up next time you go to Just imagine it – whereas you go to and see an empty search box, you go to and you load a page that has guessed what query you were going to make, and runs it for you. So if the item on your task list for Thursday afternoon was “buy car insurance”, you’ll see something like this:

Heh, heh ;-) Good old Google – just being helpful ;-)

Explicit intention information is not just being handed over to Google in increasingly literal and public ways, of course. A week or so ago, John Battelle posted the following (Shifting Search from Static to Real-time):

I’ve been mulling something that keeps tugging at my mind as a Big Idea for some time now, and I may as well Think Out Loud about it and see what comes up.

To summarize, I think Search is about to undergo an important evolution. It remains to be seen if this is punctuated equilibrium or a slow, constant process (it sort of feels like both), but the end result strikes me as extremely important: Very soon, we will be able to ask Search a very basic and extraordinarily important question that I can best summarize as this: What are people saying about (my query) right now?
Imagine AdSense, Live. …

[I]magine a service that feels just like Google, but instead of gathering static web results, it gathers liveweb results – what people are saying, right now (or some approximation of now – say the past few hours or so) … ? And/or, you could post your query to that engine, and you could get realtime results that were created – by other humans – directly in response to you? Well, you can get a taste of what such an engine might look like on, but that’s just a taste.

A few days later, Nick Bilton developed a similar theme (The Twitter Gold Mine & Beating Google to the Semantic Web):

Twitter, potentially, has the ability to deliver unbelievably smart advertising; advertising that I actually want to see, and they have the ability to deliver search results far superior and more accurate to Google, putting Twitter in the running to beat Google in the latent quest to the semantic web. With some really intelligent data mining and cross pollination, they could give me ads that makes sense not for something I looked at 3 weeks ago, or a link my wife clicked on when she borrowed my laptop, but ads that are extremely relevant to ‘what I’m doing right now’.

If I send a tweet saying “I’m looking for a new car does anyone have any recommendations”, I would be more than happy to see ‘smart’ user generated advertising recommendations based on my past tweets, mine the data of other people living Brooklyn who have tweeted about their car and deliver a tweet/ad based on those result leaving spammers lost in the noise. I’d also expect when I send a tweet saying ‘I got a new car and love it!’ that those car ads stop appearing and something else, relevant to only me, takes its place.

(See also Will Lack of Relevancy be the Downfall of Google?, where I fumble around a thought or too about whether Google will lose out on identifying well liked content because links are increasingly being shared in real time in places that Google doesn’t index.)

It seems to me that To Do/Task lists, Calendars, search queries and tweets all lie somewhere different along a time vs. commitment graph of our intentions. The to do list is something you plan to do; searching on Google or Amazon is an action executed in pursuit of that goal. Actually buying your car insurance is completing the action.

Things like wishlists also blend in our desires. Calendars, click-thrus and actual purchases all record what might be referred to as commitments (a click thru on an ad could be seen as a very weak commitment to buy, for example; an event booked into your calendar is a much stronger commitment; handing over your credit card and hitting the “complete transaction” button is the strongest commitment you can make regarding a purchase decision).

Way back when, I used to play with software agents, constructed according to a BDI (“beady eye”) model – Beliefs, Desires and Intentions. I also looked at agent teams, and the notion of “joint persistent goals” (I even came up with a game for them to play – “DIFFOBJ – A Game for Exercising Teams of Agents – although I’m not sure the logic was sound!). Somewhere in there is the basis of a logic for describing the Database of Intentions, and the relationship between an individual with a goal and an engine that is trying to help the searcher achieve that goal, whether by serving them with “organic” content or paid for content.

PS I don’t think I’ve linked to this yet? All about Google

It’s worth skimming through…

PPS See also Status and Intent: Twoogle, in which I idly wonder whether a status update from Google just before I start searching there could provide explicit intent information to Google about the sort of thing I want to achieve from a particular search.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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