Ask Jeeves: What’s the Future of Search?

Ask Jeeves’ vice president of products weighs in on the future of search, forecasting developments in local search, personalization, and the fate of the current fad involving social networks.

With Yahoo recently switching to a new and improved index, Google testing localized search and MSN promising to enter the foray sometime in the next twelve months, you can bet that the search engines we know today will be greatly improved over the next couple of years.

While the spotlight may be on Google, Yahoo and MSN, Ask Jeeves has quietly improved their search engine to ensure a user experience that is second-to-none. While, Ask could comfortably rest on its laurels, the company knows that the competitive world of search is constantly changing. To continue to thrive, Ask Jeeves they needs to remain at the cutting edge of search engine technology.

Recently, I caught up with Ask Jeeves’ vice president of products Jim Lanzone and asked him his thoughts on what the future of search might hold.

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Let’s start with what you see happening in the future?

Jim Lanzone: In the area of things we can talk about, we are very excited about our work on both the search technology side and the search experience side. They are equally important to helping people find what they need.

Regarding the user experience, we’ve had a lot of success with Smart Search the past year, and you can expect to see us continue to pursue that strategy. Smart Search is more of an ideology here than a brand name. It means giving the user smarter results in a more intuitive way, and what that means differs depending on what kind of search you’re doing.

What new developments in search do you see happening in the next 3-5 years?

Because accessing information is such an integral part of our lives, I believe your interaction with search will change dramatically in the next 3-5 years. You will be able to access search databases from other sources than the keyboard (with voice recognition technology, maybe), and on different platforms (such as the GPS in your car).

GPS (global positioning system)? How do you see GPS and search interacting?

For example, a GPS with search capabilities could tell you where to find the best local pizza restaurant or nearest medical clinic in a neighborhood you visit. Of course, in order for that to happen, local search capabilities will have to vastly improve, as will voice recognition technology.

Apart from GPS, do you see search having an impact on any other consumer products?

Search is the #1 activity on the Web, and there’s no reason why the utility of search or the Internet should be restricted to your PC or Mac. I believe a device will come along and have the same impact on search as the iPod did for music.

Cell phones will probably adapt more to this device, ultimately, than the other way around, due to usability issues, and the user’s desire to carry only one device. Standing on a street corner and using this device, you will search for a local restaurant, or a cab company, through the Internet. Instead of going to the cab company’s website, you will click a link and initiate a phone call. The search engine will be compensated for the call (this is the traditional Yellow Pages model of “metered calling”) rather than the click.

Let’s take it one stage further. Assuming there were no restrictions on technology, what new feature would you like to see introduced by the search engines?

We’d like to one day be able to understand a user’s query perfectly, regardless of how they phrase it. Understanding the query perfectly would do much more to impact the quality of results for the everyday user (whether novice or expert) than perfecting the results themselves (though obviously we’re trying to do both!). Much of our work is geared towards overcoming the hurdles of technology to make this dream a reality. After that, things like voice-enabled search will flow more easily.

What if cost wasn’t an issue? Any dream product?

If cost were no issue, we’d also like to see an Ask Jeeves-enabled PDA in every user’s hand!

Companies such as Eurekster are betting that social networking is the future of quality search engine results, what are your thoughts?

In terms of the social networking devices being developed by other companies, there are two types we’re seeing get attention. The first is the kind being used by the likes of Friendster and, where social networks are being used to help people find a job or a gardener or a date.

The potential problem with this is the “reverse network effect”, whereby the more the network grows, the less useful the recommendations are by those in the network. For example, how much more useful is it to me, versus the yellow pages or a search engine, to be recommended a contractor by my friend’s cousin’s neighbor? Now imagine if that’s how I’m finding a date for next Friday night?

Meanwhile, with something like Eurekster, the “social networking search engine”, you may face the same problem. At what point are these results more useful than those given by our “normal” engine, which is already getting smarter and smarter about who and when it serves up certain results. So, in the end, we believe that social networking as defined and utilized by Teoma is the best of breed way to go in this area, and the most effective growth will be built on its foundation.

What makes Teoma the “best of breed?”

Our Teoma technology is predicated on social networking theory, as originally pursued by the Clever team at IBM in the mid-90’s. Teoma was the first (and is still the only) search technology that can identify the Web graph’s expert hubs and authorities in real time.

What is Teoma doing that the IBM team couldn’t do?

The Clever team identified that it was a better mousetrap for producing relevant search results, but thought it would take a server farm the size of the state of Texas to produce in real time. Teoma does it in a split second. Others questioned whether the technology would scale past 50 million document index. We’re now at 2 billion. Remember that Teoma is a much younger technology than our competitors, so in some ways we’re only now starting to see the power of it. And as it grows, social networking will continue to be at the heart of what makes Teoma different and special.

Do you foresee a time when commercial search results (product/services) will be separated from informational search results (white papers/educational sites)?

Yes, similar to Yellow vs. White Pages. But since index search is already separate from pay for placement links, this is a much more important prediction for the future of paid inclusion. The future of paid inclusion is more likely to be in separate, possibly 100% paid indexes, than it is the current mix of paid and unpaid links, and structured and unstructured data.

It’s better for monetization, better for relevance, and probably better for the FTC. When you think about it, this is already happening with a site like, which is basically product search with a 100% paid index. Same thing with the Yellow Pages. I could see this model extended to jobs, airfares, and even adult sites.

We’ve talked a little about providing more relevant search results. If search engine users gave up a little of their privacy and allowed their search habits to be monitored, would this allow the search engines to provide better, customized results?

Some search engine users are already giving up their privacy willingly, for example with the latest Google 2.0 toolbar. The reason why Google wants this information is because the answer to your question is a resounding “yes!” Even more important than results customized for individuals, however, which will have some utility but not as much as some may think, are results customized for groups of individuals who exhibit similar characteristics.

For example, those who frequently visit certain sites. Moreover, search engines can use this information to track the quality of their competitors’ results, because these toolbars can – if users allow them to – track their usage on other sites.

Jim, thank you.

Andy Beal is vice president of search marketing for WebSourced’s division and editor of Search Engine Lowdown.

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