Five Parting Thoughts on Google, Bing, and the Future of Search
Remember when Google was the good guy, with the motto “Don’t be evil”? When did it officially become Public Enemy No. 1? OK, I’m exaggerating a little, but at Monday night’s Xconomy Forum on the Future of Search and Information Discovery at the UW, it sure seemed like people were piling on.
It was Brian Bershad, Google’s Seattle site director, against the world—panelists and audience members alike pushing and prodding, trying to expose Google’s weaknesses, talking about what other companies can do better, and even comparing the public’s habitual use of Google to smoking cigarettes (see Thea’s writeup of the event here).
Google’s a big boy, and it was all in good fun—but we’ll see who has the last laugh. Let’s not forget how well Google’s core product actually works, and how often you find exactly what you need, whether it’s people or product information, maps and directions, some obscure document or news reference, or what have you—all for free. If any upstarts are going to chip away at Google’s dominant share of the Internet search market, they’re going to need to bring serious advances in technology, business models, and marketing.
The future of search is clearly a fast-moving target. In just the last few days since our event, Bing has rolled out a slew of new features, adding data from social media, Twitter, and Microsoft Photosynth to its maps; a search interface for Windows Mobile; and a kind of “virtual assistant” for search. Rumors have been swirling about Bing making deals to pay Rupert Murdoch’s Dow Jones to block Google from indexing its Web stories. But Microsoft senior vice president Satya Nadella said that isn’t Bing’s intent, as reported by Dow Jones Newswires, the Wall Street Journal, and other outlets.
Meanwhile, Google CEO Eric Schmidt penned an op-ed in the Journal defending Google’s relationships with publishers and laying out his vision for how Google can help journalism adapt in the digital world.
To me, this just reinforces how pervasive search is in our daily lives—and how many unsolved problems there are that smart entrepreneurs and business people should be tackling with everything they’ve got. So here are the parting thoughts I’m left with after our Future of Search event:
1. Google will probably outcompete your startup if you’re doing text-based search. “I would actually not encourage small companies to go after anything in search having to do with text, because I think we’re going to get there,” Brian Bershad said.
2. Steve Hall (of Vulcan Capital) would disagree that Google is unbeatable on text. Semantic analysis is a fundamentally different way of discovering information, by understanding the meaning of text (and the sometimes confused queries people type into search engines). Although it may still be a few years away, it seems like a promising long-term strategy against information overload. (See startups Gist and Evri.)
3. The playing field is wide open for entrepreneurs in niche areas like location-based and mobile search, and video search. Oren Etzioni (from the UW and Madrona Venture Group) mentioned one intriguing opportunity: being able to search for individual TV episodes on the Web, like, say, a certain Seinfeld episode you’d like to find online. “Search is much broader than documents,” he said.
4. Cam Myhrvold (of Ignition Partners) sold us on the importance of social media search. He’s on the board of Topsy, a San Francisco startup working on Twitter search and related problems. This is a crowded and already pretty advanced field; I suspect someone will emerge as a leader in the coming year.
5. The competition for talent between Google and Bing is heated, especially around Seattle. That’s my interpretation of Harry Shum’s (from Microsoft) comment that Google engineers don’t have much left to solve. Bershad disputed that notion, of course, and his remarks about what ultimately worries Google—the prospect of losing its innovative and entrepreneurial spirit as it grows—reinforces how crucial it is for each company to get the best minds in there to fight the future.