Editor's note: As 2010 winds down, we're celebrating the Best of 2010, our top 10 most popular columns of the year on Search Engine Watch, as determined by our readers. Every day over the next two weeks, we'll repost the most popular columns of the year, starting at No. 10 and counting down to No. 1 on Dec. 31. Our countdown continues today with our No. 5 column, which originally was published on June 16. Enjoy!
The history of the planet is full of great empires which were supremely successful -- and yet all ultimately failed. The Roman, Mongol, Spanish, and British empires all crumbled in the end.
Often the seeds of defeat were sowed at the height of their success when, after wiping out their most fearsome enemies, new power struggles were fought within the empire, rather than with external foes. As we know from the famous quotation, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Just a few miles away from where I write this article lie the ancient remains of Carthage, the one-time capital of the Carthaginian empire of Hannibal and his elephants. The Carthaginians were the Roman Empire's greatest enemy and when Carthage was beaten by a long Roman siege during the Punic wars in 146 BC, the Romans spared no one and became the single most powerful empire on the planet at that time.
Google's Search Empire
Google is, without doubt, today's most successful search empire -- but right now there are still some parts of the world which have resisted its global expansion. Yandex resists in Russia, Yahoo in Japan, and Baidu is strong in China and has made some recent progress thanks to Google's own moves in the region. But you could argue that Google's Carthage has rather been its battle against Yahoo and Microsoft in which right now it has been victorious.
Truly great empires generally fall for one of two main reasons -- they expand too far or they split from within, often leading to destructive civil war. Many people have written articles debating who would be the "Google Killer" -- it's actually a rather strange and aggressive concept, but since we're going in a militaristic direction, let's just think about firstly about Google and expansion.
"Search" is a fundamentally human idea; we all need to find solutions to our questions and answers to our problems, so with or without search engines we have to go and search. But we don't necessarily need a "search engine" to do that. In fact, throughout human history, by far the commonest source of shared information was through asking other people. Increasingly, the online world is making it easier to ask our friends for help. We can even pose a question into the ether without even knowing which friend will know the answer and respond.
Search Wars: A New Hope?
Every day, more alternatives offer us easier access to this "friendly advice." Facebook is arguably the most successful example in the world, but there are many more social networks having independent information "bases" than there are search engines.
Even though there are a great many search engines globally, only a small number actually have their own index because the vast majority simply act as doorways into Google. This isn't the case yet for social networks.
Then there are newer forms of social networks, such as Twitter. Yes, much of what you can do on Twitter also exists on Facebook, but arguably Facebook has been following Twitter's development of updates rather than leading the way.
Twitter was originally inspired by the SMS text messaging format of mobile phones -- hence the 140-character limit, and it's within the mobile phone world where the battle for supremacy in online search needs to be won. Why? Globally, far more people have access to a mobile phone than a PC. This applies especially in remoter parts of the world such as parts of South America, the Far East, and where I am now in Africa.
Imagine then that whenever you want and wherever you are, you can find whatever you need, and buy it instantly, without ever turning on your PC -- simply by clicking a few buttons on your mobile. Why would you ever go to your PC again if you didn't need to for some office-related work task?
Empire State of Mind
Interestingly, many have written that Google can't be beaten simply because they now have such extensive resources that no one -- apart from possibly Microsoft or Amazon -- could actually deploy sufficient resources in terms of servers to even enter the market place because they wouldn't be able to handle the very large volumes of data. Just like the Romans who thought they would never be beaten once they had Carthage in the bag, this is the time you should start a serious quest for the next opportunity and the shape it will take.
There is indeed a far greater and more powerful resource on planet earth than Google that's more capable of organizing all of the world's information. That is us -- you and me and our 6.5 billion global relatives. The global index that search engines create is now so big that few can even comprehend its scale and yet it's dwarfed by the global human mind. If you could create links or connections between all of human experience living on this earth, you would have an index making Google, Microsoft, Yandex, and Baidu combined look tiny.
Bringing together these two strands of thought, namely that connecting human experience and doing it through mobile phones is the future of "search," then you can draw the following conclusion:"The global Google Killer will come from the organization which connects human knowledge together via mobile phones."
This leads us to another intriguing thought. It isn't the organization which succeeds in indexing the whole of the web which wins, but rather the organization which "crawls" the human mind.
Searching for Meaning
The start point of our new experiment has to be how to get human beings to give up as much of their knowledge as possible in ways which can be captured and shared by machine-readable technologies -- in other words by computers.
Humans share their knowledge in a number of different ways:
- Through their behavior -- where they click, read, and buy.
- Via information such as Twitter- or Facebook-style updates or links.
- Giving feedback via review sites.
There's some discussion today about real-time search as if that's the next big thing. In my view, it's not. Being able to discover what people did yesterday isn't actually as insightful as knowing what everyone did in the last year.
The secret is in being able to capture and read all this information and store it in a usable form. Candidates for providing that slice of our information might be comScore, Nielsen, or alternatively Hitwise, Omniture, Google Analytics, or Yahoo Web Analytics.
Twitter- and Facebook-style information in the form of updates could well be the next piece in our jigsaw and sites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp might be the final piece. Or it might be answers to questions -- very popular indeed in the Far East.
None of these aspects actually depend on crawling and indexing billions or trillions of web pages -- but rather in compiling these human experiences shared through various types in a searchable form -- and then delivering it via mobile phones. I believe that people with Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft -- as well as Facebook and Twitter -- have already drawn the same conclusions.
The Empire Strikes Back
Taking the Google example, Google is already working desperately to capture all of the shared human experience data and to work it into their index in a usable form. That is what their attempts, though less than pretty, at presenting real-time search have been all about.
Sharing data between people by creating Buzz for Gmail users was headed in exactly the same direction. And Google Analytics together with personalization have both been collating human behavior data for quite some time. Launching Android as an open source vehicle was about taking facilitating share in that vitally important mobile phone access zone.
So, in fact, the "crawler+data organization (index)+algorithm+ search ranking" pattern of search we understand today has to disappear and be replaced with "human behavior logging+data organization (index)+algorithm+ranking" to produce the right result. Google could actually be its own Google Killer as they, for one, are well placed to do this.
But perhaps, in the same way that Carthage became a Muslim stronghold and part of the fall of the Roman Empire at its demise, Google needs to recognize that ultimately the "crawl" will have to move its focus from websites to people.
The Return of Yahoo?
Carthage changed hands many times, but its lack of power and influence was a part of its later recovery. Perhaps, then, Yahoo's recent moves into mobile globally -- but most importantly the fact that it will soon no longer own a "crawl" -- means that it will be the site of the re-birth of search with a different focus unfettered in the way that Google may be.
Yahoo began as a search engine which did not rely on a crawl, it answers many questions for people in the Far East and has many of the other resources needed to go successfully in this direction. So Carol Bartz may prove ultimately to be the most far-sighted "seer" all.