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A Conversation with Matthew Koll

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Matthew Koll is a pioneer in the web search industry. He was the founder and CEO of Personal Library Software, acquired by America Online in 1998. He's currently the founder and CEO of Wondir, a search engine Chris wrote about in 2002.

I asked Matt to share his thoughts on the current state of the web search industry.

Matt, what's wrong with web search today?

I think web search today is actually quite good. The leaders, as well as some small upstarts, have made a lot or progress on doing all the little things that incrementally make consumer web search better than it was. In terms of the areas where its still falling short. I'd point first to the unintended consequences of using popularity in rankings. The most popular sites are not necessarily the best sites. And users who issue the same search are not necessarily satisfied by the same documents. So finding the less popular, more deeply buried or more obscure document that might in fact be the best one for this user right now - there's still a long way to go on that score.

In terms of returning answers instead of just documents... in spite of what my new company does (plug here for www.wondir.com). I don't think returning documents is all bad. People often need a context to go with an answer. But still, people sometimes want a simple answer, and it would be great to give it to them when that's what they want.

I'm still waiting for the great breakthrough in visualizing search results. Clusters, folders etc are nice. And I'm continually attracted to new attempts at graphical or spatial displays. And I like the new A9 interface, Nevertheless, nothing I've seen really has the intuitive clarity and simplicity needed to be a major improvement in efficiency for the user.

What business is Google in these days?

Advertising. That's where their revenue comes from, so that's their business. The Google site just happens to be one of their best distribution outlets (pretty convenient for them huh?). I think of Google as two companies. And it wouldn't surprise me if one day there were to split in two.

I don't think its possible to overemphasize the revolution that GoTo (now Overture now Yahoo) and Google have created in the world of advertising, For content and media companies, search companies, any company that is in the business of having users tell them something about what they are interested in - GoTo and Google have created a superb enabling environment.

As for companies that are in the info retrieval and access business, I'd say half of Google is. And a decent portion of Yahoo, Ask Jeeves is there. And Microsoft will get there. And its possible that some of the current upstarts will get there as well. You gotta be impressed by what Gigablast has done so far.

Has Google made any mistakes?

From the point of view of building their business while staying focused on producing good search results, its awfully hard to criticize. Not that search results can't get better, and not that the other guys don't have openings in which to attack them and to exceed them in certain ways.

Do you think it's possible for any company to beat Google?

Of course it is. We haven't witnessed the end of history - not in the world, and not in the search business. Google's competitors are offering very competitive quality of results now. And Microsoft really has not been heard from yet. I think we should start a pool - picking the year and month in which Google is not the leader in search engine traffic.

Having said that - I think Google had done a great job. They've done it primarily with size (of index), speed (lots of hardware intelligently deployed), simple interface, eliminating really bad documents, good ranking of the better documents, and staying focused.

How much more can web search technology improve?

I'm not expecting true natural language understanding any time soon. But we can continue doing a whole bunch of little things - such as specific results for known questions, recognizing known entities. We can make better use of user feedback, and of clues to the user's intention. I think that far more than personalization, tuning results to the users task at the time will produce greater improvements in relevance.

That's one of the big reasons I haven't written off Microsoft. No one is in a better position to figure out what the user is trying to do than they are.

And I may be wrong, but I think searching by voice will be huge. When I have a question, I want to just say it out loud and have results appear.

Do you still see a need for vertical or specialized search tools?

Yes, but...

A general purpose tool just cannot provide the targeted results that a vertical or specialized tool can. At least, not without requiring too much knowledge or effort on the part of the user. On the other hand -- and this is no small matter - knowing where to look is the first and biggest obstacle to overcome in searching. So how does the user get to the appropriate vertical or specialized tool? For those who get there, better results await. But for most people most of the time, the specialized tools will go unused.

Can a single database answer every question?

That's a trick question. Single database? Single service? The Holy Grail is not having to think about where you ask your questions - but you just ask it and the system does all the work of figuring out where the answers are. Its like your list of lists. I'm a firm believer in virtual unification.

Does making a database larger necessarily make it better?

Pretty much. Unless its growing out of control. I'd say that leaving documents out of a database is a pretty lousy way to improve precision.

What do you see five years from now?

Voice access. Task integration. Unified natural language access to all different kinds of information: web documents, desktop documents, network documents, contact info, definitions, media segments, background info, and live Q&A of course.

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