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

12/2/09

The World Wide Web is an overwhelming collection of information, especially when one is faced with the task of sifting through it—and it’s only expanding. In the last few years, the induction of social media into the online realm has added more content to the Internet than that of the decades preceding it combined. Picture searching through this information influx as if you were reading a map—the more destinations, roads, and pit stops you have to hit along the way, the more difficult the map is to navigate and the more time-consuming the journey. Moreover, if you’re crossing the border, your information may need to be translated.

So what do the leading tech companies have in store for our Web surfing future? It’s full of countless possibilities. At least, that was the message echoed to attendees at Monday night’s Xconomy Forum on The Future of Search and Information Discovery. In a packed University of Washington lecture hall, five of Seattle’s most knowledgeable experts in search and computing weighed in (see event photos here), and their remarks pointed to compelling innovations in the works from everyone—from startup underdogs to industry leaders like Google and Microsoft. And they’re all in a race to do it better. The hot topics on everybody’s to-do list: mobile search, semantic analysis, and user interfaces for search that are both vertical and comprehensive.

“How many people had to print out directions to get here?” panelist Brian Bershad, Seattle site director for Google, posed to the audience. Bershad’s point was that our searching capabilities, specifically on mobile devices, should integrate intuitive advances like voice recognition and location-based services. “My phone should just text me at 5:55 with directions,” he said. “GPS and voice direction should be integrated into the machine.”

Others on the panel pointed out that the smartphone has become the frontier line for mobile search. “I think we’re very far from the endgame for search on these devices,” said professor and entrepreneur Oren Etzioni, the founder and director of UW’s Turing Center. The way he understood it, the question came down to how many different gadgets a person could, or would, carry in their pocket at any given time. “It wasn’t the Swiss Army Knife approach until the iPhone came out. So basically, people prefer a single solution as long as it works well. Once you have something that answers all your questions correctly, people will gravitate toward that,” he said. “You get your answer and you move on.”

The idea of the “Swiss Army Knife” search doesn’t stop at mobile devices. Now search providers are looking for ways to incorporate that all-encompassing, personal user experience into a better, more efficient, and faster search catered specifically to each user’s needs.

“I don’t think of Google [search] as ‘one box,’” said Microsoft corporate vice president Harry Shum, who heads the Bing engineering team. Instead he noted that the future of information discovery is increasingly about getting the user to fine-tune and “reveal their intents” as they search. Using the iPhone as an example for Google’s vertical search capabilities, Shum addressed the disconnect between the amount of online information out there and the infrastructure needed to adequately search it. “If you have thousands of applications, how can users find what they’re looking for?” he said. Shum suggested that search engines involve users in their queries, which may develop better applications and generate more positive search results.

With both Google and Microsoft on the panel, one audience member posed a provocative question: What, he asked, are the weaknesses of each company’s culture and organization, and what are 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 what traditional search engines, including Bing and Google, are currently capable of, he said. This dynamic, intuitive searching requires things that “just aren’t really feasible with keyword syntax,” Hall said.

Still, many struggle to see how search engines can keep up with the need to sort, search, and categorize the mass of multilingual, cross-continental content on the Web. For users who want to see more personalization—search results that integrate comprehensive, real-time, social networking data with vertical, and even emotional, content and user-unique applications like task management, to provide a customized experience—the vision may be far ahead of the reality.

“The technical challenge for that is limited to tracking the user,” Etzioni said. There is plenty of consumer information available to work with, but an issue arises when it comes to the question of personal privacy, he added. “I think a lot of people even in this audience would say they don’t want that.”

The answer to sorting through the innumerable tasks users say they want their search to include, according to Shum, lies in user participation—creating an “overall search ecosystem” full of impassioned users who contribute and determine the “right direction” for the future of search.

Meanwhile, Etzioni emphasized the importance of semantic search. “Most people don’t search for fun. There’s a task in mind,” he said. “And it’s still the case that there are a bunch of tasks—just planning a vacation—that take hours and days to sort through.” He imagines a day “in the not too distant future” when something that now takes hours will take only minutes to search—“when you have an engine that understands the semantics of what’s involved in that task, including what’s being said in reviews.”

When asked the question of what key operational and technical changes search engineers at Microsoft and Google have made in the last decade, the panelists—and Bershad in particular—pointed to developments in comprehensiveness of search results. “Ten years ago, you could get most of the Web on a couple of PCs,” Bershad said. “Search is just as good [now], but the Web is a lot bigger.”

Lastly, the Bing and Google panelists sparred over what is left for each of their companies to solve. “Why should an engineer work at Google? There are not many more problems for them to solve anymore,” Shum said. “We really try hard to look at what Google is good at— comprehensiveness of index, faster response…There are three problems in search: relevance, performance, user experience. A lot of those areas, Google has been leading, and we have been trying to catch up.”

Bershad wouldn’t argue with that, but he challenged Shum’s premise. “If there was nothing left to solve, I wouldn’t have a long list of hard problems on my whiteboard,” he said, reiterating the need to be comprehensive. “For that search to be meaningful, it needs to be meaningful across all the information.” That includes information from around the world, in every language and every medium. “Search needs to work across Web pages, it needs to work across newspapers,” he said. “It needs to work across your medical information, it needs to work across all information in order for it to ultimately be useful.”

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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