From Swiss Army Knives to Smoking Cigarettes: Google, Bing, and Startups Talk Future of Search

The World Wide Web is an overwhelming collection of information, especially when one is faced with the task of sifting through it—and it’s only expanding. In the last few years, the induction of social media into the online realm has added more content to the Internet than that of the decades preceding it combined. Picture searching through this information influx as if you were reading a map—the more destinations, roads, and pit stops you have to hit along the way, the more difficult the map is to navigate and the more time-consuming the journey. Moreover, if you’re crossing the border, your information may need to be translated.

So what do the leading tech companies have in store for our Web surfing future? It’s full of countless possibilities. At least, that was the message echoed to attendees at Monday night’s Xconomy Forum on The Future of Search and Information Discovery. In a packed University of Washington lecture hall, five of Seattle’s most knowledgeable experts in search and computing weighed in (see event photos here), and their remarks pointed to compelling innovations in the works from everyone—from startup underdogs to industry leaders like Google and Microsoft. And they’re all in a race to do it better. The hot topics on everybody’s to-do list: mobile search, semantic analysis, and user interfaces for search that are both vertical and comprehensive.

“How many people had to print out directions to get here?” panelist Brian Bershad, Seattle site director for Google, posed to the audience. Bershad’s point was that our searching capabilities, specifically on mobile devices, should integrate intuitive advances like voice recognition and location-based services. “My phone should just text me at 5:55 with directions,” he said. “GPS and voice direction should be integrated into the machine.”

Others on the panel pointed out that the smartphone has become the frontier line for mobile search. “I think we’re very far from the endgame for search on these devices,” said professor and entrepreneur Oren Etzioni, the founder and director of UW’s Turing Center. The way he understood it, the question came down to how many different gadgets a person could, or would, carry in their pocket at any given time. “It wasn’t the Swiss Army Knife approach until the iPhone came out. So basically, people prefer a single solution as long as it works well. Once you have something that answers all your questions correctly, people will gravitate toward that,” he said. “You get your answer and you move on.”

The idea of the “Swiss Army Knife” search doesn’t stop at mobile devices. Now search providers are looking for ways to incorporate that all-encompassing, personal user experience into a better, more efficient, and faster search catered specifically to each user’s needs.

“I don’t think of Google [search] as ‘one box,’” said Microsoft corporate vice president Harry Shum, who heads the Bing engineering team. Instead he noted that the future of information discovery is increasingly about getting the user to fine-tune and “reveal their intents” as they search. Using the iPhone as an example for Google’s vertical search capabilities, Shum addressed the disconnect between the amount of online information out there and the infrastructure needed to adequately search it. “If you have thousands of applications, how can users find what they’re looking for?” he said. Shum suggested that search engines involve users in their queries, which may develop better applications and generate more positive search results.

With both Google and Microsoft on the panel, one audience member posed a provocative question: What, he asked, are the weaknesses of each company’s culture and organization, and what are … Next Page »

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