A Cool Future for Search

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Mark 2009 as the year that search finally became sexy again.

In the decade or so since Google launched its eponymous search engine and became the techno-cultural center of our online world, we’ve become almost blasé to regular tweaks to the service. Behind the scenes, Google engineers worked — and continue to work — to feverishly tweak the search engine’s algorithms, increase the number of Web resources it covers, reduce response time and improve relevance to near-telepathic levels.

In virtually all respects, they’ve succeeded. Few of us come away from a Google search without at least a partial answer to our original question. We expect it to work and, for the most part, it does — which means we trust it implicitly and use it almost by default.

The statistics bear that out. ComScore figures for April 2009 show 64 percent of United States searches used Google. Yahoo was a distant second at 20 percent, while Microsoft trailed with 8 percent. Trending analysis paints a similar story, as Google has been slowly growing its share over the years, while Yahoo and Microsoft continue to fade. Google, today’s standard of the search world, seems to be good enough for most of us.

But should it be good enough? Perhaps not. Despite the tremendous improvements in back-end capabilities, Google’s front end — and the front end of virtually every competing offering — has remained nearly the same since search engines first went mainstream. Whatever the brand, most search engines still follow the same basic paradigm:

  • Type search terms into an empty box.
  • Click the “Search” button.
  • Scroll through a sequential, text-based list of responses.
  • Click through them until you get what you need.
  • Repeat as necessary.

While search engineers have invested tremendous resources in optimizing the list of responses and minimizing the amount of scrolling, hunting around and repeat searching, it’s becoming increasingly evident that this manual, sometimes frustratingly imprecise and time-consuming method is running out of steam as the Web itself undergoes tremendous change.

Web 1.0 is history. Integrated Web services baked into widgets and productivity applications make streamlined delivery of answers a hands-off process. Real-time search, driven by the explosive growth of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, reinforces the power of search tools that paint a picture based not on periodically spidered, static data, but on message streams that reflect what’s happening right now.

The rising tide of mobile use is putting similar strain on tools that were originally architected for conventional desktop PCs. Search takes on a whole new meaning when you’re on the go, and scrolling through lists of links on a small screen connected to a less-than-reliable wireless network just won’t cut it when you’re racing through the airport or running into a client meeting.

Google’s dominance — and its competitors’ inability to mount even a semi-serious challenge to that dominance — hasn’t helped matters. Whenever one company owns so much of a market, any incentive for accelerated development is suppressed. Antitrust proceedings in Europe notwithstanding, Google hasn’t been branded a monopoly — not yet, anyway. But its position atop the market has made it that much more difficult for truly differentiated search offerings to carve out a recognizable niche for themselves or otherwise hit critical mass.

This extended period of quiet may be ending as a new wave of offerings emerges. Some, such as Microsoft Bing and Wolfram Alpha, you’ve probably heard of. Others, such as Cuil and Hakia, haven’t garnered as many headlines, but are nevertheless worth a look as the market realizes the search for tomorrow increasingly relies on more than one overwhelmingly dominant provider.

If search was the killer app that jump-started the commercial Internet in the mid-to-late 1990s by making it easy for us to find what we needed to get work done, then next-generation search-based services that move beyond sparse interfaces could represent the killer app that unleashes Web 2.0 in the same way.

Static Web pages, long the basis of conventional search services, are rapidly giving way to dynamic Web applications that underpin the socially aware nature of Web 2.0. It’s no longer good enough to leave those applications when we need answers. Next-generation search services will be baked into our online activities, often so seamlessly that we’ll rarely have to duck into another browser window to find what we need.

None of these newcomers will challenge Google for search supremacy anytime soon. But ultimate victory isn’t their goal, anyway. The mere presence of a few somewhat-viable alternatives after years of near-total supremacy by Google signals the beginning of a gradual evolution in how search works and how we work with search. And if this evolution influences Google along the way, then we all win. When the dust settles, the very way we perceive search will, in all likelihood, permanently change. 

Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He offers consulting advice on enterprise infrastructure, mobility and emerging social media. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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