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Search is a Darwinian Game
In my last Just Behave, I talked about how the vast majority of search engine users never go beyond the vanilla functionality of a search engine. They skip along the surface of search, never diving deep into advanced queries, filters or clicking on the tabs and links behind which lies some truly impressive capabilities. This paradox had two sides: why don’t we work harder at search, and; if we never explore all that rich functionality, why do search engines keep developing it? Why did Google create Wonder Wheel, why does Bing offer several layers of search refinements and why does Yahoo still have a sandbox? What’s the point of all this if we never use them?
Search engines keep testing the development waters because they have too. Everyone acknowledges that we’re still in the very earliest stages of digital information searching. If we plotted this on an evolutionary time scale, we’d be just emerging from the primordial ocean. And no one is sure what search advancement might be the one that tips the balance and creates a significantly more evolved experience for the user.
Revolution through evolution
I’ve said on multiple occasions that Bing is an evolutionary advancement in search, not a revolutionary one. Personally, I have no problem with that. I believe all advancement is evolutionary in nature. Revolutionary change is built on the back of hundreds of small evolutionary steps forward. Sometimes, one of those steps creates a tipping point and everything suddenly shifts dramatically.
Changes are changes: some cause nary a ripple in the vast pool of natural selection, and some cause a species to start walking upright. The problem is that you’re never sure which one is going to be which. The problem I have with Bing has nothing to do with product development and everything to do with product marketing. The Bing advertising campaign is promising something the search engine isn’t ready to deliver. Not yet, anyway.
So the engines have to innovate and develop new functionality, even if nobody is ready to use it yet. Because some of that functionality will form the foundation that the new generation of search will be built upon.
The iPhone: revolutionary or evolutionary?
Everyone looks at the iPhone as a revolutionary product. But there’s nothing in the iPhone that didn’t exist in some form before. Multi-touch displays? Nimish Mehta developed the first example at the University of Toronto in 1982, 25 years before the iPhone debuted. The iPhone’s ability to detect motion? The electronic brain behind that “revolutionary” advancement is an accelerometer, technology that is decades old.
There is no single revolutionary thing about the iPhone. What is revolutionary is how all these evolutionary advancements came together. The same will be true when Search breaks its current paradigm. Suddenly the world will discover amazing new functionality that’s been around for years, hidden behind an unused tab or hidden hyperlink.
Functionality designed for a new interface
What is guaranteed to change is the way we interact with search. Search needs to become much more intuitive and deliver more relevance in less real estate. Up to now, search engines have had the luxury of delivering a results “buffet”, 20 to 25 links spread over a big desktop display. It leaves it to the user to pick and choose the best link, which hopefully the engine has placed to the upper left.
In the future, engines will have to “get it right” more often, presenting the best result at the top of the page, so when we access from a mobile device, we will see what we’re looking for in a much smaller display. Don’t give me a buffet and ask me to choose. Deliver me exactly what I’m craving right now, even if I’m not sure what to ask for.
We also need to do more with search results. It’s not enough for them to be relevant. They also have to be useful. Anticipate what I want the information for and then take me several steps down that path without me having to do anything. Mash up results with other applications and bring my ultimate objective several clicks closer.
In summary, to revolutionize search, we need to do three things:
- Get it right 99.9% of the time in as little real estate as possible
- Deliver those results with as little explicit user input as possible
- Anticipate what the user is going to do with the results and take them as far down that path as possible
All the things the engines are testing right now is hopefully getting us closer to one or more of those three objectives. And while individually those advancements aren’t enough to get us to play with the newest beta in Yahoo’s Sandbox or Google’s Lab, in combination they might significantly change the game. Going from ho-hum to revolutionary is sometimes not that big a leap. It’s simply a small evolutionary step in the right direction. Keep in mind, humans share 96% of our genetic code with chimpanzees. It’s the 4% difference that counts.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.