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The trouble with ranking

Every year, we see the rankings of top universities, top companies to work for, top cars to buy, etc, being updated and published. These are widely followed by people and affects their decisions on what university to apply to or what car to buy or what company to work for.

Ranking also plays a part in many of the smaller aspects of life - like what's the link in a Google search that we click on, what's the next Netflix recommendation we watch or the Spotify recommendation we listen to.

A good chunk of my work at Booking involves ranking hotels and apartments to showcase to users when they search for them in a place they are going to vacation in. This could be a minor decision for some users or a major decision for some users - as it could be just another weekend trip or their all awaited honeymoon.

The key difference between ranking the major aspects of our lives like universities, companies to work for, cars to buy and cities to live in, and the minor aspects like the google result we click on or the Netflix recommendation we click on, is that the minor aspects are heavily personalised while the major aspects aren't.

You and I won't see the same Netflix recommendations as they are based on the history of what we have and haven't watched. However, all of us see the same ranking when it comes to universities and cars and companies to work for.

I might place a lot of value on spending less money on obtaining a degree, while someone else might place a lot of value on joining an elite and selective university. But, both of us end up seeing Yale as the top ranked University, which is highly selective, but not at all easy on the bank account.

But, when we pick a University or buy a car, we aren't totally swayed by the published rankings and end up deliberating our choices and rationally thinking about what makes most sense to us.

Yet, the social pressures we try to live up to are a lot like unpersonalised rankings that we don't deliberate much about at all, but spend our lives chasing - bigger apartments, more cars, world travel, designer clothes, etc.

What's success to me may not be what's success to you. But what Internet companies have taught us is that users are happiest when we personalize their experience.

And that's what we ought to be doing with the rest of our lives - defining our own ways of ranking things and defining our own successes.

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