Over the past several months, I’ve been trying to crystal ball what the future of search might look like. I’ve had fascinating discussions with several visionaries in the industry, including Stefan Weitz (Microsoft), Shashi Seth (Yahoo), Hampus Jakobsson (RIM) and John Battelle (Federated Media).
In my last column, I started to sum up the overarching themes that emerged from these conversations. Today, I wanted to wrap up the journey I started almost a year and a half ago.
Searching From Different Devices
One of the biggest catalysts of change in search has been the adoption of different devices from which we launch our searches. Suddenly our searches drop into a much broader spectrum of contexts. The search we launch from our smartphone can look substantially different than a search launched from a tablet or a desktop.
We have different intents, different expectations and different ways of interacting with the device. One size fits all search just doesn’t fit that well any more.
Stefan Weitz, Director – Bing Search:
“This notion of “doing a search” is rapidly becoming outmoded. My daughter is five and as you can imagine, my house has 12 machines running at any given time. There’s an iPod touch that’s on the web and she uses it to query things on. Her notion of “going to” an engine and searching is pretty comical. She just assumes that everything is always knowable, instantaneously, at her fingertips through some mechanism.
It’s amazing what you can do with one of these devices from a search standpoint when you think of all the information we understand. We understand your latitude and longitude, so we know your location. We understand better your previous queries because unlike PC’s, the mobile device is fairly personal. We can push things to (users) without them even having to ask, which I think is the thing that excites me the most.”
Shashi Seth, Senior Vice President – Yahoo Search Products:
“I believe that in five years or so, mobile search will have overtaken desktop search. And the areas where that is going to grow the fastest is going to be in Asia and Europe.
If you have the kind of interactivity that a smartphone like an Android phone or an iPhone offers in terms of the touch interface—the ability to move from app to app—and if you had a larger screen, would you be able to do significantly more? I think the iPad has definitely answered that question. Given the interactivity of these tablets, you can build an experience that is what you’d want the next generation of desktop experiences to look like. It definitely opens up a range of possibilities that have never existed before.”
Johanna Wright, Product Management Director – Google Search:
“Mobile is a key part of our strategy and opens up many possibilities for the future. With smartphones getting better and better, people are doing more and more searches. Phones also enable new kinds of search input. For example, today users can search by voice by speaking a query into their phones. They can also search by sight by snapping a picture in Google Goggles. They can even search by location by simply clicking “Near me now” on their mobile Google homepage. The phone is a uniquely intimate device, and this invites further personalization and other exciting possibilities for the future.”
A Shift In The Balance Of Power In The Search Biz
A recurring theme that has come up through all of the conversations (instigated by my continual prodding) has been how different user expectations may shake up the search market, which is dominated by Google.
Competitors have been unable to make much of a dent in Google’s dominant (almost monopolistic) position in desktop search, but if one thing has become clear in these discussions, it’s that the days of desktop search are numbered. Can Google shift their decided advantage into the new emerging search markets?
John Battelle, Founder – Federated Media and author of The Search:
“I think that there are significant business model implications there and I’m pretty certain that they are the obsession of the folks at places like Google, because search as a destination, search as a ubiquitous catch-all is the reason that Google’s dropping billions of dollars to the bottom line every quarter. Search as an application where your first search isn’t the search itself but rather the search for the right application is a very, very different use case. You have the market influence and dominance of one player splintered into tens of thousands of players.
This is the one of the reasons that Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt (note – this quote came from before Eric’s stepping down from the CEO role at Google) don’t like each other very much right now. We really have an interface war going on and I think it’s fascinating.
This is one of the main reasons that Google decided to get into mobile and to do Android. They are saying, “Well, we’ve got to protect our flag by having a significant play in this next evolution of how people engage with computing, how people organize information and make it available.” That’s their corporate mission, and they had to play there—they couldn’t just assume that the HTML web was going to stay static. I thought it was very smart of them to do that.
The iPad coming out has been an inflection point—an ah-ha moment where they realize that there is a new interface to computing coming. It’s very rare that you launch a new device that already has 140,000 applications built for it, and that’s a pretty big deal. Now to my mind, there’s an awful lot of noise and not very much signal in 140,000 applications. So there’s a big search problem there and I think maybe Google would be wise to own that search problem.
I think it’s a phenomenally important piece of real estate, which is why Steve Jobs controls the whole end-to-end experience. Vertical integration is highly profitable. There’s just not going to be any crawling of the iTunes Store from a third-party developer native on iTunes. It’s going to be Steve Jobs who does search for iTunes. He may not do web search, but app search, that’s him. And now I think that there are opportunities to do that better and to do it across platforms, including netbooks and tablets.”
Shashi Seth from Yahoo touched on this same opportunity. I think in the time since these interviews have been conducted, there have been more and more signals coming from Apple that they’re assembling the pieces required to control this new type of search, especially within their own verticalized empire.
“I think (Google) has a vested interest to continue down the path that they have invested in, and that path is much more around one search box, one user, and one form of advertising. I think it’s a lot easier for somebody like Yahoo! or Apple to shift the game a lot. Apple is in a very interesting place because they’re truly a platform play. They clearly have no intent of getting into the content or the search business themselves, but they bring a lot of capabilities to bear that people like Yahoo! and Microsoft and Google need, and clearly with the separation between Google and Apple that is going to be a different kind of war.”
Not surprisingly, Google was very careful in how they answered the question of whether they will continue to dominate the search business:
“We think it’s a good thing that there are many different search options out there. This gives users more choices for how they want to search and discover information. However, on the other hand users also want a more unified and seamless search experience. Users don’t think in terms of “portals” and “properties,” they want information (or “answers” and “to do something with it” as you say).
Over time, integrating different content types into the main Google experience has been a clear win for users. We did this a couple years back with universal search, where users can start finding images, news, books and other content right in their main search results.
With our more recent results page refresh, we’ve made the interface more consistent across different types of information, so when the user clicks “images” she still knows exactly where to find refinement tools, the search box, and other interface elements she’s used to. We don’t anticipate any kind of splinter of the core search experience on Google.”
The Future Of Search Advertising
When we’re talking paradigm shifts in the industry, it’s not just market share that’s up for grabs. It’s also the form that advertising might take, and in search, advertising equals revenue.
This becomes an interesting opportunity for Yahoo, who have always been a pioneer is testing new ad formats and integration across their properties. Now that they have been freed from the tedious duties of maintaining a search algorithm, will they push the envelope in pioneering new types of advertising for our changing search experiences. Shashi Seth’s comments certainly indicate that this might be the case.
“With mobile advertising also comes another opportunity, and that is to break down the artificial boundary between search advertising and display advertising. And that’s another stake in the ground – mobile search is not going to look and act much like desktop search. In fact, I believe that mobile search is going to be in the shape and form of mobile apps and that users are going to engage with it and therefore the kind of advertising that lives there is unlikely to be traditional search advertising.
I think the display advertising experience on a search app on an iPad offers up the kind of advertising that even traditional internet display advertising has lacked. It’s the kind of advertising that you see in a magazine like GQ or Vogue, where ads and content start blending so well together that users don’t even think of them as ads, they actually think of it as content. That’s why I think that the next generation of advertising on mobile devices is going to blend display and search advertising, meaning the targeting can be done in one way or the other, for an audience or for keywords—but the kind of formats that you see on these devices are going to be significantly different and will probably bring in new kinds of advertisers that have shied away from this platform traditionally. If you think about a brand like Hugo Boss or Louis Vuitton, who traditionally have not advertised on the internet because they’ve never gotten the kind of canvas that is needed. But if you bring this new kind of canvas that we’re talking about, which could work especially well on an iPad or even an iPhone/Android kind of device, I think the world is your canvas at that point.
It requires that marketers become much more data-centric in their analyses and their targeting, and that the kind of data that publishers like us have to bring to the table for marketers is going to be significantly more sophisticated than has been done in the past. For example, knowing and providing details about users, their habits, what kind of content are they likely to interact with, what their needs might be, and then changing that advertising and marketing message to fit that individual user is going to become increasingly important. And it’s even more important to do it in the right way on the right device. For example, connected devices like the iPad or a connected TV. I think the kind of ads that you bring to the table have to be very different in each of those scenarios and have to tie in the user’s context, the intent, the device, the location, and so on, which makes for a pretty complex landscape. Much like we’ve talked about search changing, I think advertising is going to change a significant amount as well.”
Moving Into The Future
The most forward looking observations in the series of interviews came from John Battelle and Research in Motion’s Hampus Jakobsson. In those conversations, we moved well away from the safety net of what we currently know about search and speculated about what might be further out on the horizon.
The surprising thing was that no matter how wild the predictions seemed, none of them were further out than the next 10 to 15 years. This seems to indicate that we’re truly at an inflection point with our search experiences.
In my interview with Jakobsson, he laid out a vision of “connectedness” that included increased usage of smart personal devices that collect data specific to you and an increasing number of nodes where you can “plug in” to the broader public database that is the Internet:
Hampus Jakobsson, Strategic Alliances EMEA, Research in Motion
“I see the Internet evolving as a database. It’s a repository of information and you become the unique identifier. We’re seeing an interesting grid – seeing this single identity, you, which is another repository for a lot of different information. In the coming years, the number of nodes between you and the Internet, between the “public” to the right and the “individual” to the left, you’re going to see more and more nodes interacting. That node might be your mobile phone or your laptop or your car or your ambient screen.”
Search & The Hidden Persuaders
What becomes interesting, and more than a little frightening, is the form that union of private and public data might take. This ramps up the discussion about privacy significantly. For example, let’s say our lives become even more digitized and that data becomes available to marketers.
They use it to fuel even more sophisticated recommendation engines, in a drive to take the guesswork out of marketing.The goal: provide the right advertising message to the right person at the right time, at scale and with mathematical precision.
All this sounds great, if you’ve got your marketing hat on. But what if you’re the customer? Does the ability to target ad messages so precisely that buying becomes, quite literally, a “no brainer” (or, at least, a “no prefrontal cortexer”) represent a benefit or a very frightening step backwards in personal freedom?
Here’s the thing. The more we understand about how we make decisions, the more we realize that often (always?) we’re subconsciously responding to environmental cues and then rationalizing it after the fact as a decision or action we made consciously and rationally.
There is an increasing body of evidence to show that our notion of free will is not exactly as we imagine it. This is a contentious issue; so I expect many of you to be falling on the opposing side of this debate, but for the sake of speculation, let’s assume this to be the case.
If our brains are wired to respond to cues, and if those cues take the form of exceptionally well targeted advertising messages, coming to us in the guise of recommendations, have we allowed those advertisers full access to our “buy button”? It may strain credulity, but the field of neuromarketing is advancing pretty rapidly. The “hidden persuaders” that Vance Packard warned us about a half century ago may be quickly becoming a reality.
“Are we in control of our destiny? Is there such a thing as willpower? What is in a world where people can suggest possible directions, where we can’t control it anymore? Of course we can control it, but it requires a lot of stubbornness and thinking about what you really want all the time.
I think our children and our children’s children would laugh at the way we gave away information and exposed ourselves to recommendation algorithms and other things, persuading us to do things that we didn’t want to do. That’s going to be the asbestos of the 21st century. We’re not really realizing this now, just like we didn’t do with asbestos. We will endlessly jump into these mistakes.
There are immense problems that comes with this and I think one of them is that we’re going to create a lot of services, which running on business models and ideas, which might be completely un-thought through in terms of whether it’s a good idea or not. For example, recommendation algorithms – where does the recommendation end and advertisement start?
When I give up all my data to you, that’s extraordinarily scary because you can present me with information and change my behavior on the one hand. This has always been the case with my Visa card and my Amex. They know everything I buy, they know when I’m getting a divorce…they can actually see when people are getting divorced. They can predict that six months ahead of the divorce, they see that on a purchase pattern.”
John Battelle also sounded the alarm about this impending collision between privacy and convenience:
“I think personal feeds and the consumers’ ability to say, “Sure, you can have my feeds because I’m going to see value from it and I know that we’re in a trusted relationship”… I think that that handshake is going to be increasingly made in our culture. I think, however, that we need to have a conversation about that handshake and understand it. We’re in the midst of that and it’s going to get more and more interesting over the next decade. I think that the handshake between large services now and what will become a flood of new streams of valuable data from apps, from interactions on other sites and services will allow a Google or a Microsoft to touch and have access to a ton of data about us. But the bond of trust and the cultural contract that we have with those services is going to have to be very well understood. I think we’re sort of slouching our way there, but we’re increasingly having a conversation about that cultural contract and social contract.”
Search & The Singularity
I’ll leave the last word to Battelle, who finished up our conversation with a philosophical riff that touched on no less a subject than the melding of man and machine:
“But it is the greatest question of search, which is how do we get to the point where we can meld man and machine? I think our whole culture is this sort of grand narrative marching down that particular road, and hopefully by the time we get there we’ll be smart enough to know what it means to have essentially created life. And that’s a big, amazing, interesting concept—you know, created life artificially. And that’s I’m convinced, knowingly or not, why most of the people are in this industry, because it’s just got this sort of sexy, immortal vibe to it—we’re working on a big problem that if we solve it could either destroy us or let us live forever.”
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.