If there’s one thing that both Google and Microsoft agree on, it’s that search isn’t solved yet. Google’s vice president of search product and user experience Marissa Mayer has said:
We’re all familiar with 80-20 problems, where the last 20% of the solution is 80% of the work. Search is a 90-10 problem. Today, we have a 90% solution: I could answer all of my unanswered Saturday questions, not ideally or easily, but I could get it done with today’s search tool. (If you’re curious, the answers are below.) However, that remaining 10% of the problem really represents 90% (in fact, more than 90%) of the work. Coming up with elegant, fitting and relevant solutions to meet the challenges of mobility, modes, media, personalization, location, socialization, and language will take decades. Search is a science that will develop and advance over hundreds of years. Think of it like biology and physics in the 1500s or 1600s: it’s a new science where we make big and exciting breakthroughs all the time. However, it could be a hundred years or more before we have microscopes and an understanding of the proverbial molecules and atoms of search. Just like biology and physics several hundred years ago, the biggest advances are yet to come. That’s what makes the field of Internet search so exciting.
Well… I agree with the philosophy, if not the time lines. Information discovery and dissemination is a science that is already hundreds of years old. Google, in its present state, is a small but significant wrinkle in that time line. What is exciting is that it’s marking an important change in how we look at information. What Google has done is introduced a “Just in Time” information economy. It’s a little presumptuous to say that we’re at the beginning and that internet search marks an entirely new science. Really, this still comes down to how we seek and use information. The internet and search has represented a monumental shift, yes, but it’s not a new ball game. And I certainly hope we don’t have to wait hundreds of years for significant advancements in the state of search.
Microsoft’s Director of Product Planning Stefan Weitz also said in an Ars Technica interview with that we’re early in the game of search:
“’We’re not at where we’d like to be,’ Weitz began, and then dove in to explain that people are generally happy with how their search engine is working, until the data shows that they are not.”
So, there seems to be consensus that there’s a lot to do to improve web search. The question is, what does that improvement look like? A blog post by author and industry pundit John Battelle caught my attention:
I describe my frustration with search as it relates to helping me make a complicated decision: How to possibly buy a classic car. From it:
So first, how would I like to decide about my quest to buy a classic car? Well, ideally, I’d have a search application that could automate and process the tedious back and forth required to truly understand what the market looks like. After all, if I’m looking for classic Camaro or Porsche convertibles from the mid to late 1960s, there are only so many of them for sale, and they can be categorized by any number of important variables—price, model, region, color, features, etc. And while a number of sites do a fair job with a portion of the market, I don’t trust any of them to give me a general overview of what’s really out there. That’s where an intelligent search agent can really help.
So here, Battelle hits on the idea of search assisting in complex decisions. And then, from our own Search 2010 series of interviews, usability expert Jakob Nielsen voiced a similar concern:
I think we can see a change maybe being a more of a usefulness relevance ranking. I think there is a tendency now for a lot of not very useful results to be dredged up that happen to be very popular, like Wikipedia and various blogs. They’re not going to be very useful or substantial to people who are trying to solve problems.
In the same series of interviews, I talked to Marissa Mayer about where search may go, and she envisioned a more interactive set of search results:
We will be able to have much more rich interaction with the search results pages. There might be layers of search results pages: take my results and show them on a map, take my results and show them to me on a timeline. It’s basically the ability to interact in a really fast way, and take the results you have and see them in a new light. So I think that that kind of interaction will be possible pretty easily and pretty likely. I think it will be, hopefully, a layout that’s a little bit less linear and text based, even than our search results today and ultimately uses what I call the ‘sea of whiteness’ more in the middle of the page, and lays out in a more information dense way all the information from videos to audio reels to text, and so on and so forth. So if you imagine the results page, instead of being long and linear, and having ten results on the page that you can scroll through to having ten very heterogeneous results, where we show each of those results in a form that really suits their medium, and in a more condensed format.
The common theme, it seems to me, is aspiring to move beyond relevancy as the metric by which a list of search results is ordered to providing us with information that we can do something with. For that quest, there seems to be two different approaches. Microsoft, with Bing, appears to be favoring Battelle’s “online valet” model—an all-knowing wizard that helps guide us through complex decisions. Indeed, the branding of Bing as a “decision engine” reiterates that aspiration. Bing’s strategy, still in it’s nascent stages, is to pick the categories where complex decisions and the need for more useful information abound: shopping, local, travel and health.
I believe Bing is on the right track, but they’re still are too bound to the typical search format. Even searches in these targeted categories don’t usually deliver a search page that offers substantially more useful results than Google. If the goal of Bing is to be a decision engine, it should rise to the challenge more boldly. For example, I’m thinking of buying a Prius, which, with all the trade-offs between a higher sticker price but potentially lower operating costs certainly qualifies as a complex decision. To echo John Battelle’s wish, I’d love a digital valet to go out and gather all the relevant information and then guide me through it. This is what Bing promises to do. Let’s see how it delivers.
I search for “buying a Prius,” a pretty clear signal of my intent, and this is what I get:
Just for reference, here are results for the same search on Google:
Based on this, I don’t really see how Bing is offering a substantially more useful experience. In fact, I see little difference at all between Bing and Google.
But, by the same token, it’s been two years since my interview with Marissa and in those two years the Google search experience is virtually the same as it was then. In fact, if anything, it’s gone backwards. The presence of universal results was greater in 2007 than it is now. The results haven’t become any more interactive or engaging. I can’t really do much with them, over and above the minimal functionality offered by SearchWiki, and even with that, I question how much more useful that makes Google. I suspect most users have no idea what those faded gray icons mean or even that they exist.
This concept of search usefulness as a direction is fascinating to me. It becomes even more so when we extend it into the mobile domain, with all the promise of integrated functionality and geographic relevance. There are so many things that could be incorporated to improve usefulness and dramatically improve our search experience, driving us closer to the aspirations voiced by both Microsoft and Google. So, the usefulness of search will be the topic I focus on over the next few columns. I’ll talk to both Microsoft and Google and get their thoughts on the subject. I may tap into a few other opinions as well. Whatever I find, I’ll share it all with you, the readers of Just Behave.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.