From Swiss Army Knives to Smoking Cigarettes: Google, Bing, and Startups Talk Future of Search

12/2/09

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the opportunities for startups looking to jump into the information discovery game? This question echoed an important theme that moderator Ed Lazowska from UW pushed on throughout the evening: where can small startups make a difference in search?

Steve Hall, managing director of Vulcan Capital, pointed out three areas of startup opportunity: browsing and discovery technologies that reduce the need for search; vertical search sites (real estate, for example); and semantic analysis that allows computers to understand the true meaning of what you’re searching for and can “auto-categorize” information on the Web. “On the Microsoft side, I think they are still the large player when you think of corporate e-mail—Outlook, for example, which a lot of us use,” Hall said. “And that’s an area where there hasn’t been much innovation in a very long time. I think there’s an area where their flagship Office Suite is exposed quite a bit.”

As for Google, Etzioni said, “It did seem for a while like there was very little innovation coming out of the flagship…The worry would be inertia.” With success comes the reluctance to change a good thing, he seemed to be saying.

Bershad, for his part, added some thoughts on the two things that could threaten Google. “As we become bigger and older, it could become more difficult for Google to innovate. It’s very clear within the organization when there’s a piece that isn’t innovating. Like antibodies, it gets surrounded and shaken up. Then they go back to hopefully an innovative state. I worry, I guess, that those antibodies would disappear. I also worry about diminishment of the sense of entrepreneurship. It really still is the case [at Google] that most teams are under 10 people, most things are started by a couple of engineers. I worry that would go away,” he said. “I don’t see them happening, but that’s what I would worry about.”

The panel covered all manner of online search and information discovery topics—from real-time news, mobile search, user interfaces, the role of marketing and advertising, and the influence of social media, to the future of vertical search (like travel, shopping, and real estate)—and they referenced what just might begin to unfold at the precipice of search capabilities in the next few years.

“A lot of those areas Google has been leading are a lot of the places Bing is trying to catch up,” Shum said. “90, 95, 99 percent of the time, if you can find something from Google’s first page, you find the same from the first page on Bing.” He identified the biggest search problem—and goal for developers—as pertaining to the time spent searching and gathering valuable results.

Any Internet user who has grappled with the task of re-searching using different keyword selections, only to walk away frustrated, can appreciate that sentiment. And yet, search engines have a “sticky” quality with many users that keeps their attention and patronage, even if there could be a newer, faster, more efficient one out there. Shum took the opportunity to jab at his main competitor. “Google is like smoking cigarettes,” he said. “It’s a habit that’s going to be difficult to give up.”

“It is a known fact that more users of Google die every year than users of every other search engine,” Etzioni joked back.

But in all seriousness, the panel seemed to agree that the nature of search would have to change. “Keyword search is great when you know what you’re looking for,” said Hall. “But what if I don’t know what I’m looking for?” That’s when you need search technology that operates outside of … Next Page »

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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