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 […]

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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.

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About the author

Gord Hotchkiss

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