John Battelle On The Future Of Search

As soon as I decided I wanted to explore the question of where search was going, I knew sooner or later I had to talk to John Battelle. John wrote what I still consider the definitive look at the industry, The Search, in 2005. Since then, in addition to running Federated Media, he has continued to be one of the more thoughtful, visionary, frank and opinionated voices in this space.

Recently, his musings have taken on a decided tone of discontent. In a few recent blog posts, Battelle mused that search, while not necessarily “broken,” may indeed be increasingly falling short of our expectations. This lined up well with my own feelings that relevancy may no longer be an adequate proxy for usefulness. It was this theme that kept surfacing in my conversation with Microsoft’s Stefan Weitz.

Search: Bent or broken?

I started off by asking John about his recent writings about the current limits of search.

Battelle: We’re going through a shift in how folks are understanding what search really means to them. And what it means to them is “I have a need and I need it fulfilled, and I’m going to use the online medium to fulfill it in some way.” We had a very, very basic, well-understood use case for 10 years, which was Google or “like Google”—you put in a couple keywords and you get a response back. And that framework of searching and coming back with the best document to answer a query is morphing. People are asking far more complicated questions now and they’re demanding far more nuanced answers, simply because they know they’re out there.

john battelle

When you were searching what was essentially the text web in 2000 to 2006, you might say, “I want to know what people think about sub-zero refrigerators,” so you put in “sub-zero refrigerators” and find some guy who’s an obsessive blogger about refrigerators. He has a perfect page that talks about sub-zeros, all the positives and negatives, and the pricing and whether it’s overpriced or just right or whatever, and you came away going, “Wow! I feel so much smarter than I was when I started,” and said, “Thank you, search. You’re really helping me out.”
Now when someone is putting in “sub-zero refrigerators,” they probably want comparative pricing, their friends’ opinions, a 10-year history of repair… they expect a whole bunch more information because they know it’s available, they know it’s out there somewhere, and bringing all that together and making it make sense in a way that is easily consumed is a massive interface and structured-data task that search was just not set up to do. I think we put in our intentions into search now and what we’re getting back is, you know, the answer to every possible potential nuance of your question in a massive list of results, and that’s not a good experience.
In some of the postings I used the example of trying to figure out which classic car to buy. In a case like that, I don’t even know what I don’t know, and to expect search to tell you what I don’t know is expecting more than search can deliver. That’s a longwinded way of saying I think we’re going to be disappointed with our results because we’re not there yet both culturally and technologically to deliver what we know as consumers is out there. But we’re going to be. I think that we’re in a transition period.

From destination to application…

So, what are we transitioning to? If search doesn’t deliver on our expectations in its current form, what form might it take? Perhaps it’s not so much an “engine” as an application. Battelle used Expedia as an example:

Battelle: We will go do an insanely sophisticated search on Expedia in a matter of three minutes where we determine which flight to take. That’s all structured data and it’s basically an application, right? Expedia is a search application, it’s a decision support application. We do all that work and then we’ve trained ourselves to think about things that way. Then we’ll go to Google, we’ll put in something that has nothing to do with travel but maybe has to do with buying a refrigerator or a car, and we expect search to do that for us. And it’s not that we are consciously expecting it. It’s just that if you put in “1967 Mustang,” you’re hoping the right answer comes back when in fact you need to do a 2 to 3 minutes structured search using an application, not using sort of a vanilla generic search engine.
I think that we’re seeing this start to happen with search apps and with the things that Google’s doing with its interface, with things that Bing has brought to the table, some of the things that Ask tried but didn’t really have the scale to execute.

Where’s the revenue in middleware?

This approach essentially turns search into a “middleware” module, something that sits underneath other application interfaces and powers the functionality that is eventually delivered to the user. This is a dramatic shift from search as we currently know it. Of course, the user experience and functionality is completely different, as well as the way we launch our searches. But John drilled down to another transitional consideration— the revenue model that Google has so successfully capitalized on. Google’s revenue currently depends on it being the primary touchpoint with the searcher. What happens to that revenue stream when somebody else owns the eyeballs?

Battelle: 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— right?—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. You or I sitting in our office over the weekend could come up with the absolute best structured search application for determining who should be your arborist to cut your trees. And that’s a threat to Google Local Search. If the best application to determine a plumber is the plumbing app on an iPhone—you download it and it automatically pulls all the local results from Yahoo!, Bing, and Google, then pulls all the reviews from Yelp and Angie’s List, then cross-compares that with complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau and Diamond Certified—if that’s the app you use, where’s Google in all of that, right? Unless Google built that app. And this is the one of the reasons that Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt don’t like each other very much right now. We really have an interface war going on and I think it’s fascinating.

A search engine for search apps?

But if there’s one thing I’ve discovered in watching our online behaviors, it’s that we’re truly creatures of habit. If search goes down the road John Battelle is envisioning, how do we find what we’re looking for? If search becomes an engine powering thousand or millions of little, very focused apps that can benefit from a focused interface and structured data, how do we pick the right app for the right intent?

Battelle: We don’t know whether or not this is going to become standard cultural behavior. I think we have significant glimmerings of it on the iPhone platform. 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.
But I do think that when it comes to winners and losers, it’s very hard to handicap how this is going to go. I would prefer to believe that it’s going to fracture into thousands of beautiful pieces as opposed to be controlled by one, as Steve Jobs puts it, “orifice,” and that’s why I’ve been fascinated in watching how it’s developed. 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—and he’s always been doing this, ever since… you know, forever… controls the whole end-to-end experience, right? 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. The AppWorld. Intel has announced an app store, I think it’s launching later this year. As netbooks become a force and start having an app-based model, I think it’s a really interesting field.

Battelle is envisioning a significantly different type of search interaction, and that changes everything. In my next installment of Just Behave, I’ll share the conversation John and I had about what that interaction might look like, both from the perspective of the user and from what that might do to the search industry, both the big players we know and some dark horses we haven’t yet met.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: is CEO of Enquiro, a search marketing firm that produces search engine user eye tracking studies and other research.

Connect with the author via: Email


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • stefanw

    I love it when great minds come together. And then I’m there to bring it all down. But seriously I completely agree with John. The ability for an engine to do more than return a bunch of links that put the burden of exploration on the human is a model that needs a refresh. Determining intent of the query – thru explicit or implicit means – and trying to build an experience (whether its thru brokered apps or preprocessed info) that helps people navigate the new online lanscape – that is where we need to be headed.
    Stefan Weitz
    Director, Bing

  • Clifford Bryan

    Interesting concept but I don’t see Google being as worried as the article implies. Google has thrown billions into its “image” as the best in search. Which backs up the reality. They also can fine tune their algorithm pretty much at will if they see fit. The new caffeine engine is an example. They have “stressed its flexibility”. That’s code word for, “we have our eyes on the competition”. Any new “uber search” that comes out will have to gamble that Google caffeine does not have the same capability “under the hood”.

    It would be dangerous for a company to invest in a search engine based on what you see Google search doing on the “exterior”. Other then the small chance that the intricacies of caffeines “flexibility” leaks out, this sounds like a gamble.

  • Gord Hotchkiss


    I think you missed the point. This is not talking about a new search engine. This is talking about a distinct shift in how we search, moving Google and it’s algorithm to a role of supplying search functionality rather than owning the real estate on which the results are shown. It’s that paradigm on which Google’s current revenue model currently sits, and that’s what John is saying is in jeopardy.

  • dbv

    There is no doubt that the tens of thousands of Apps on smart devices (and eventually) on all devices will benefit from embedded search ie. Apps that use a search engine at the back without the user knowing about it. You can see why Google would be worried about this and it begins to explain the iPhone vs Android wars that have started. But, search engine science is still at its infancy.

    Amit Singhal, Google Research Fellow said recently (, “Ultimately, search is nowhere near a solved problem. Although I’ve been at this for almost two decades now, I’d still guess that search isn’t quite out of its infancy yet. The science is probably just about at the point where we’re crawling. Soon we’ll walk. I hope that in my lifetime, I’ll see search enter its adolescence.”

    Entering a text query (eg. “sub-zero refrigerators”) and getting back pages that contain some combination of those keywords is no longer enough (or relevant). Whether used directly or indirectly (in Apps), search engines of the future will have to transform to mimic what we as humans do in our everyday lives. We search for and find “things” constantly and do it remarkably well. Information retrieval has to move towards a model based on human learning and generalization. When we do, John’s query for “sub-zero refrigerators” will return relevant “things” whether the things are web pages, documents, images, videos, sounds and so on to satisfy his information need.

  • George Michie

    Gord, this is a great interview.

    I do wonder though if we aren’t talking about semantics here. Ostensibly, when one searches for “photography gear” and ends up on Adorama’s site or B & H Photography’s site, haven’t they in fact found a killer app for finding photography gear, reviews and info? Seems like the apps already exist in the form of websites.

    One could argue that those apps (websites) have a limited range of offerings when compared to “everything”, but…

  • natewood

    Facinating. To me this all points at the fragmentation and verticalisation of search. The penetration of the digital generation and growing sophistication of searchers means that one search engine won’t always be the best tool to use. There is huge scope for verticalised search, if done well, and if done in time to actually gain traction before the Big 3 get their momentum going. A great example is the recruitment and jobs arena, where there are some great aggregators and search services there already, although they don’t have the brand traction and recall and still rely on search engines to send intial traffic.

    I think we’ll see the Big 3 engines pushing the case for structured data so that they can develop more vertical offerings themselves. Unfortunately for app producers, many of these pull data from the Big 3, and simply cross reference it and compare. There’s a real need here to gather and manipulate data in creative ways outside of the search engines if there’s to be any competition.

  • kameir

    Google claims that its mission is to organize the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful. At first look this seems to be a valuable goal. However, it is important to keep in mind that this mission is subordinant to the primary goal of any company which is to increase the wealth of its owners (shareholders) by paying dividends and/or causing the stock price to increase. Plagued by this paradigm Google adapted a business model (AdWords; AdSense) that in its consequence led to the development of an entirely new industry: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) which in its various forms – such as content farms – has caused an explosion of digital content that is essentially marketing copy disguised as information. In short: Google consequently organizes mostly the world’s ad copy rather than the world’s information. It is hence an utterly failed attempt to effectively organize information. Unless the “search giant’ is willing to radically change its business model there seems no way out of the corner the company painted itself into.
    I am working on an concept that addresses the inherent conflict while attempting to put the challenge of information organization into a wider scope than simply ‘search’ and hope to push out a minimum viable product out this year.


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide