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Analyst firm IDC predicts that by 2020, the amount of data generated each year will reach 35 zetabytes. Companies are fighting this deluge in numerous ways. Some archive data for analysis at a later point in time, some purge data as quick as they obtain them, while others capture, ingest, analyze, and use data for competitive advantage—sometimes in microseconds! And in a sea of plenty, it’s often the best algorithm that wins.

An algorithm is simply a step-by-step approach for solving a problem. Think of an algorithm like a formula; it can be complex, or relatively simple in design. Now add compute power from today’s super fast computers coupled with the know-how to design, build, and maintain these formulae and you have a winning combination! Companies across the globe use algorithms to make recommendations (think: If you like this product, you’ll probably also like this), choose optimum delivery routes for packages, and even route calls to agents that can best diagnose a particular problem.

How can an algorithm confer competitive advantage? Depending on the type of business you’re in, it’s easy to see how algorithms can reduce all available choices into the very best options. Take for instance, Google. In the February 22, 2010 issue of Wired Magazine writer Stephen Levy points out, “For years, (Google) has used its mysterious, seemingly omniscient algorithm to, as its mission statement puts it, “organize the world’s information.” Google’s algorithm is constantly tweaked, honed, tested, and improved to better interpret searchers’ requests, no matter how awkward or misspelled, says Levy. And this competitive advantage in its search algorithm has (so far) confirmed a 65% share of the search market for Google.

In a sea of data, algorithms can also help reduce choice overload. Online dating sites often use proprietary algorithms to divine appropriate partner matches based on user inputs such as preferences for race, religion, eye or hair color, and more. eHarmony’s algorithm for example, helps select potential partners based on a 258 question personality test. eHarmony’s algorithm takes too much choice (sea of available singles) and distills/simplifies millions of choices into much more manageable options.

And while companies like eHarmony rely on data input by a user, a new recommendation engine called Wings mines your social media “bread crumbs” left on various websites (including Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, Foursquare and others) to feed into its algorithm to pick a suitable dating partner. A MIT Technology review article on Wings says, “The idea is that the computer’s analysis of your behavior provides a richer analysis than you’d say about yourself.”

More data has been created in past three years than in past 40,000 years, says Teradata CTO Stephen Brobst. Indeed, today and into the near future, companies that can sort through, analyze and utilize this rich trove of data treasure faster (in some cases with blinding speed) than competitors will dominate over those enterprises slow to comprehend this critical transition.

Related: “Social Network Analysis: Hype or Help?” and “The Zero Latency Future is Now


  • Are recommendation engines becoming more or less reliable? Think of a website you often use that uses recommendation algorithms. How “close to home” are its choices for you?

  • Do you think a computer can discern your tastes in romance better than you can?

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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.