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Search: Where to Next?

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Cover up your crystal ball. Put away your tarot cards. Hide all those ancient texts by Nostradamus. They won't tell you the future of Search. But the Search experts assembled for the Search: Where to Next? panel might be able to. And Tuesday morning, they gave it a shot.

Our illustrious panelists weighed in on where Search is headed. Will it die, like many so often claim? (Do I even have to answer that?) Will it live a long life, thanks to social media, personalization or something we haven't heard of yet? The panelists' answers may surprise you, and they may not. Many of the changes are already starting to take effect. Read on to find out.

Before I reveal the future, let me introduce the present-day experts:

Moderator:
Graham Mudd, Vice President, Search & Media, comScore, Inc.

Speakers:
Stefan Weitz, Director of Search, Bing
Brett Tabke, CEO, WebmasterWorld.com
Robert Murray, CEO, iProspect
Larry Cornett, VP, Consumer Products, Yahoo! Search

The room was packed for the first session of the day. Stefan, an engaging representative from Bing, started things off, once he fixed the buzzing feedback caused by his phone. In his brief presentation, he chatted about the tremendous number of web objects and how to determine what everything means. The search term "home gym" was his example. Search results look the same today as they did eight years ago. He showed a SERP from Google because, of course, Bing hasn't been around that long. Somewhere Bill Gates cringed. Stefan's point was that user intent isn't always clear. "Home gym" can be interpreted lots of ways. But Bing is working to parse out user intent, based on previous searches, among other info. Search, after all, is for delivering knowledge.

Larry went next, because Yahoo! seems to play second fiddle to Bing these days, even though it's still more popular. (Nobody from Google was around.) As he sees it, inspiration is the next step in search engine development. Here's a handy flowchart, for those of you who work visually:

Retrieval --> Ranking --> Diversity --> Answers --> Inspiration

The next step is to use search technology to inspire. Can we (meaning Yahoo! though all search engines are moving this way) give the user something before they ask for it? That seems a little unrealistic to me, not to mention creepy. But what Yahoo! is working on did seems compelling:

  • Finding things faster, through Search Assist function embedded in the universal header and better search results. Both approaches aim to surface relevant information more quickly for the user.
  • Exploring what matters, by extracting prices, data and all the other chunks of information that matter. As an example he explained their new iPhone app that lets the user find restaurants by drawing on a map with their finger.
  • Getting things done, making rich applications available in search results.

With the mini-presentations out of the way, the panel explored the company-agnostic future. The consensus seemed to be that verticalization and personalization would grow increasingly important and less obvious. It all comes down to recognizing and understanding intent and then surfacing the right information at the right time. All the innovation is happening at the user level. And search engines are getting smarter.

Of course, who hasn't done a random search on a random topic? It's interesting to see what results a search engine will return. Stefan from Bing called it the serendipity of search. And that's an apt way to put it. Sometimes we want specific information. Sometimes we want to be surprised. And sometimes, frankly, we, as users, don't know what we want. There's a point at which personalization can become overkill. And the engines need to be aware of this.

What do these search trends mean for the little guy, meaning smaller companies? How does all this affect a company's content strategy, their syndication strategy? As Robert explained, a company can't win with a single website anymore. And partnerships with the big engines may be necessary to be part of the results they deliver.

No present-day discussion of the future of search would be complete without involving Social Media. The major search engines have announced deals with sites such as Twitter and Facebook to incorporate tweets and status updates into search results. It's part of their ongoing efforts to give users what they want. But what do they do with this mass of real-time data, much of which is useless. Never mind that a lot of what Social Media delivers isn't even real-time.

So what exactly is the future of Search? I wish I knew. What I do know is a lot of questions remain to be answered. Search engines are working to better personalize search results. Part of that effort involves Social Media and improving the timeliness of information delivered to the user. You'll just have come back next year to see where things stand.

Norm Elrod is a Digital Media Consultant and freelance writer who contributes to Search Engine Watch, SmartBlog on Social Media and AOL. He blogs about his experiences in the job market at Jobless and Less, which has been featured in The New York Times and on NY1. His marketing and editorial experience includes positions with Acronym Media, The NPD Group and Sony Music Entertainment. Norm holds a BA from Franklin & Marshall College and an MBA from Fordham University. He lives with his wife and two cats in Queens.


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