By now you have probably read numerous articles predicting "What will happen in 2004" or "Can MSN take on Google". While it is always worthwhile to look ahead and consider what may happen this year in the search engine industry, what about the things that we can't quite yet predict? Instead of looking at what will happen this year, perhaps we should look at what must happen in the search engine space if Google, Yahoo and MSN are truly able to revolutionize search and enhance the user experience.
Overcoming The Lack Of Relevant Search Results
Even today, conducting a search on any of the major search engines can be classified as an "enter your query and hope for the best" experience. Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, while designed to take you directly to the number one results, could ironically be a truism for its entire search results (process?). Enter your desired search words into any of the search engines and you often end up crossing your fingers and hoping that they display the type of results you were looking for. Since the recent updates of "Florida" and "Austin", complaints that Google, in particular, is displaying less relevant results have escalated (although mostly by those who lost important positioning that they had assumed was their right to maintain).
There is, of course, evidence that the search engines are trying to enhance their search results- so that they can better anticipate the intentions of the searcher. Search for "pizza Chicago" at Yahoo, and you'll see that the top results include names, addresses, telephone numbers and even directions to pizza restaurants in Chicago, a great improvement on previous results. Even when you take everyone's favorite search term example, "windows", you can see that the search engines are at least trying to determine your intent. While Yahoo and Google still display search results saturated with links discussing Microsoft's pervasive operating system, enter your search over at Ask Jeeves and the chirpy English butler will ask you if you meant "Microsoft Windows" or "Windows made out of glass".
Future Search Engine Technology
Smaller search engines have also materialized over the past few weeks, each offering to improve the user experience. Grokker
offers an interface that groups search results graphically, improving the way search results are segmented and displayed. Eurekster
, combines the social networking elements that are used by sites such as Friendster
, and provides results that can be filtered based upon what members of your group are searching. While all of these are interesting and provide a glimpse of the future of search, it will not be the small companies that change the way we search. With Google about to get an influx of cash from its upcoming IPO, Yahoo re-vamping Inktomi and Overture, and Microsoft finally jumping into the search arena, it will be these search engine powerhouses that enhance our search experience and take search engine technology to the next level.
So what is this next level? What technology is it that I speak of, that will revolutionize the way we receive our search engine results? I believe that the search results we receive in just a couple of years from now could make current search engine technology look as archaic and cumbersome as picking up a Yellow Pages book is today. However, in order to achieve this new search nirvana we, as consumers, must quell our fears and trepidations surrounding the protection of our privacy. In order for the search engines to develop technology that will be intuitive and anticipate our every need, we must first relinquish at least some of the privacy that we currently hold so dear. Let's take a look at some of the ways that search technology could improve and you'll soon get the idea why it will require us to cooperate with the search engine providers.
"Windows" or "windows"?
If you desire to be able to enter a term as ambiguous as "windows" and expect to see relevant results, you'll first need to give up some personal information to the search engines. Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask already have the means to collect an astonishing amount of information from us, by our use of their toolbars. Don't panic, they currently allow you to disable this information gathering, and even if you do allow it, it is collected anonymously. However, with the technology already in place, why not unleash its full potential?
Let's say I let Google track my online activities, allowing it to monitor the web sites I view and keep a log of all of the search queries I enter. This type of information could greatly improve the relevancy of the results displayed to me. For example, two years from now, I could search for "home improvement" on Google. I then find the listing for Lowes.com and visit the site. While I am at their web site, I look at a number of different pages, but I spend a lot of time in the "house windows" section, exploring the different styles and prices. Why not let Google capture all of that useful information? Then, when I go back to Google the following day and search for "windows" it would know that glass windows is more likely to be the type of product I am seeking out. Google would simply have remembered my previous searches, read the HTML and Meta data, located on the Lowes.com pages, and used this to identify the intent of my new search for windows.
While I would have to give up some of my privacy, wouldn't it be worth it if I could save myself time and energy by having search engine results more relevant to my desire?
You've Got Search In Your Mail
Another area with great potential for improving search engine results will likely be developed by Google. You may have heard the rumors that Google is getting set to launch an email client that many expect will be a free service similar to Yahoo Mail or Hotmail. Currently, Yahoo does an adequate job of making search available to all of its email customers. Each page within Yahoo Mail has a search box that makes it easy for you to conduct a search that might be sparked by an email you receive. But why not take it one step further?
Google has the technology to really take advantage of search within email. Why else would it even consider entering this arena? Imagine that, in order to use a free Google email account, you allow Google to provide advertisements and track your email activities. Google could change the way that search results and ads are displayed to free email users. For example, let's say you receive an email from your brother, the content of which, among other things, gloats about the brand new P4 desktop computer that they just purchased from Dell. As part of the interface you use to read that email, Google magically displays paid search advertising for desktop computers, including a link that will take you directly to the appropriate page on Dell.com. This information would be quite beneficial to you, as you may be interested in seeing how you too can be a proud owner of a P4 computer. Fantastic targeted advertising for Dell, as they know that if you click on the listing, they are halfway there to converting you into another satisfied customer.
This idea is so much closer to reality than you may think. Google already has the advertisers with its AdWords service boasting 150,000 users, eager to spend their advertising dollars. It also has the technology to determine which results to show you within your email interface. Google's AdSense can provide the contextual ad technology that would scan an email's content to determine which ads are the most relevant to display. With this technology in place, a simple provision within any Google Email Terms & Conditions would give the world's largest search engine the necessary permission to serve up relevant ads to all users of its free email service.
We could be offered the option of paying a monthly premium in order to not have ads shown when we read our email, but if they are relevant to the content of a received message, why would we want to block them?
From Desktop to Internet
Another development in search engine technology that I can see happening would come from the development of Microsoft's new Longhorn operating system. While I must confess that I am not au fait with the intricate workings of this project, I do know that it will likely use the search technology that MSN is developing.
Imagine an operating system that monitors all of your activities -- with your permission, of course. Every file, every image, word document, mp3, even e-books could be monitored by your computer as it endeavors to anticipate your every need. Not only could an integrated search engine allow you to search files located on your hard drive, but it could also use the information it has collected from these files to make your online search experience even more enjoyable.
It is quite possible that Longhorn or a future OS (Microsoft, Linux or Mac) could become intelligent enough to know that after listening to one of your favorite songs by the 80's rock band, Heart, your consequent search online for "heart" is more likely to originate from a desire to view the band's fan site, than that pressing need to visit the web site of The American Heart Association. Your all-encompassing search engine would perhaps be a realization of the Ask Jeeves friendly butler, ready to anticipate your every need.
To Search Where No-one Has Searched Before
When you think about the future of search, it is easy to get excited. Millions (if not billions) of dollars are going to be filling the coffers of the largest search engine providers. They have some of the smartest people in the world working to develop the next great "thing", which will enhance the user experience and serve up better, more relevant search results. Search engine technology is still most definitely in its infancy; how it grows will very much depend upon how much information and privacy the average search engine user is willing to give up. Personally, if I can view search results that more closely match my desired results, I'm willing to give up the name of my favorite pet, my place of birth and my mother's maiden name!
January 28, 2004