Danny Sullivan moderated a panel of four top search executives this morning as they discussed a variety of issues impacting the search industry at the 2004 Search Engine Strategies San Jose conference. Representatives from MSN, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo! and AOL search sat down with Sullivan for q&a that ranged from personalized search to how search engine marketers are impacting the industry.

Gerry Campbell, Vice President and General Manager of AOL Search and Navigation spent some time explaining that AOL, which pulls its search listings from Google, views search as a vital part of their community offerings. Because AOL members are more likely to surf the Internet from within the AOL community software, search has been closely integrated into nearly every facit of the user experience. Campbell explained that an AOL member that searches for a particular recipe will receive not only content from AOL's extensive internal databases, but will also be given the option to view content from the Internet as a whole, via Google powered search results. Campbell also emphasized that unlike other portal properties that have recently moved toward developing their own search technology, AOL is quite content investing their money in search technology developed by partners.

Jeff Weiner, Senior Vice President of Search and Marketplace, Yahoo! spent a lot of time talking about the shift toward a personalized search experience, explaining that "once [Yahoo] understands the intention, it's easier to enable users to complete tasks." Weiner went on to explain that Yahoo! feels that "people aren't searching for the sake of search...they want to complete a task. [They see] search as a means to an end."

Weiner pointed out that Yahoo!'s recent development of their own proprietary search technology has allowed them to be innovative in creating new features that help users fully leverage the breadth and depth of Yahoo!'s extensive community content. Providing several live demonstrations, Weiner used Yahoo! to call up detailed flight information, regional weather forecasts, local restaurant reviews and even hotel listings and prices by using Yahoo! shortcuts. Shortcuts, released by Yahoo! last year as part of an upgrade to their search services are keywords that allow users to head straight to specific types of personalized content. While Weiner admits that most Yahoo! users don't take the time to learn the shortcut features needed to access all of this information, Yahoo! has worked to use terms and triggers that are common enough to produce the desired results even among searchers that weren't purposely using those shortcuts.

Paul Gardi, SVP of Operations and Strategic Planning, Ask Jeeves focused on how far Ask.com has come over the past year as it moves toward becoming a major player in the search industry. In a single year, Ask Jeeves properties have climbed from being the 32nd most visited Web property to the 7th, in terms of domestic searches. Additionally, they have expanded their reach from just under 10% of the domestic Web to a full quarter. Ask continues to leverage Teoma to make their search results more relevant and is working toward making their service more accessible to not only desktop Internet users, but to those accessing the Web via cell phones, PDAs and other wireless devices.

Gardi focused on the personalized aspect of search at Ask and how they have worked to recognize user intentions so that they might deliver direct responses along with standardized search results. Gardi gave the example of a user typing in "weather in San Jose" and receiving a full seven day forecast along with traditional search results. A search for "Elvis Presley" turned up a brief bio of the famous singer along with standard search results from the Ask Jeeves index.

Christopher Payne, VP of MSN Search entered the group this year as the "new kid on the block" but expressed high hopes for the impact MSN is looking to make on search in the next year. "There is so much potential in search for innovation, we've just scratched the surface," Payne explained. "Five to ten years from now, search will be very different, we'll provide access to more information and answer more questions."

As the third largest search destination on the Web, MSN has been putting millions of dollars and countless man hours into the development of their own proprietary search technology over the past 18 months. Payne explained that one of the difficulties MSN has recognized with search is that quick access to information is wonderful, but the amount of information that many engines provide can be overwhelming to the user. Payne also focused on MSN's desire to extend their search reach to the desktop with the development of more detailed desktop search and the introduction of a specialized search engine for Outlook and Outlook Express users.

Sullivan asked each of the engines to take a few moments to contemplate the ways in which they bring a searcher to their site for the first time and how they work to retain those searchers after the initial experience.

Gerry Campbell of AOL Search explained that he sees search as an emotional experience. If searchers can run a search query and the first result leaves them feeling like they've gotten what they were looking for, it's likely that they'll be satisfied and come back. Campbell also pointed out the amazing value of word of mouth advertising and tied that into user experience as one of the essential reasons users visit and return.

Yahoo's Weiner expressed the importance of offering alternative search options like toolbars and deskbars. "You need to get in front of the user when they want to do a search." Weiner went on to speculate that as personalized search becomes more popular, sites like Yahoo! will turn to compiling user profiles based on activities of users within community sites and then using those profiles to impact the types of search results they receive.

Sullivan next asked the group to explain how they go about deciding which verticals they want to target next and how they choose what features to launch to the public. Ask Jeeves' Paul Gardi explained that 10% of Ask queries are specifically related to localized queries, which made it fairly obvious that they needed to invest time and effort into that area of search. MSN's Christopher Payne echoed those sentiments by explaining that search, both of the Web and user's desktops has been an expressed need by their customers and thus, has determined the direction of their growth.

While tackling the sticky question of how the engines view search engine marketers and whether or not SEO/SEM was viewed as problematic for engines, the responses were overwhelmingly positive. All four representatives explained that the growing emphasis on search marketing and conversion rates has helped to improve the quality of their listings by encouraging Web site owners to develop quality content and to build sites that the search engines can properly index. All the panelists pointed out the obvious harm that comes when optimizers try to sneak irrelevant results into the listings, but admitted that even those attempts have forced them to become more vigilant in improving their algorithms and indexing techniques.

Each of the panelists went on to talk about some of the unique features offered by their services, including MSN's new beta news search, Yahoo!'s search shortcuts, and Ask Jeeves "smart answers." They went on to admit that one of the downfalls of the various features they all offer is the time it takes for users to learn them and the fact that few users take the time to even look for specialized search features. Education and innovation are the keys to helping the search experience more closely adapt to the needs of the users rather than forcing the users to adapt to the ways of the search engines.
August 4, 2004

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > MSN, AOL, Ask.com and Yahoo! Speculate on Search