PC Forum: Where in the world is search heading?

PC Forum: Where in the world is search heading?

Summary: The final PC Forum panel had major search vendors and scientists sharing their views on search. The panel included Marissa Mayer, director of consumer product at Google (search, news, images, Froogle, local); Udi Manber, former Yahoo chief scientist and president of Amazon's A9 search engine; Alain Rappaport, CEO of Medstory; and Arkady Volozh, CEO of Yandex, the leading Russian search engine and portal.

TOPICS: Browser

The final PC Forum panel had major search vendors and scientists sharing their views on search. The panel included Marissa Mayer, director of consumer product at Google (search, news, images, Froogle, local); Udi Manber, former Yahoo chief scientist and president of Amazon's A9 search engine; Alain Rappaport, CEO of Medstory; and Arkady Volozh, CEO of Yandex, the leading Russian search engine and portal. Representatives from Yahoo and MSN were absent.

There weren't any major revelations. The consensus was that search is still a very challenging problem and none of the panelists was willing to predict what search will be like in twenty or five years. But, the common thread was that search has to get better at discovering the information you request with context (provide answers) and with more precision and personalization.

Google's Mayer is looking at providing more personalization capabilities. "We don't know how to do [personalization] well, so we are starting with baby steps, such as knowing where you are as a context," Mayer said.

She said that Google's social networking software, Orkut, is an interesting and rich space in the near term. What your friends are looking at for a particular search could help deliver more relevant and accurate results to users, Mayer said. "We are not planning anything, but it's a logical extension to draw on collective expertise of friends."

Google's primary issues for its search service are comprehensiveness (23 exabytes of data produced per year), relevance (page rank, personalization, etc.) and interaction and presentation (mobile usage, guided navigation, vertical search), she said.

mayerIn the program notes, Mayer discussed how the hidden Web could be mined, such as the ability to scan a badge or tag of an individual and retrieve their bio on a cell phone. She said, "We need to get better not at doing searches, but at providing answers people are looking for. There will be a day when ten HTML links regardless of who you are is not the answer any more." She also said that the idea of everybody getting the same search result isn't reasonable.

Manber talked about how A9 is bringing more sources of informationmanber into the mix, such as the content of books and syndicating vertical search with its new OpenSearch technology. In addition, A9 is adding video and GPS information to enhance yellow pages. Block View includes more than 20 million street-level images to date of buildings on city streets. A9 also allow users to put notes on Web pages they visit, and it collects a history of the sites they have visited and allows them to search against that collection.

Manber discussed the need for better search tools, and finding the right balance between enabling powerful but more complicated features and ease of use. "In general, people will learn to use search better but have to invest the thinking--we are not in the mind reading business."

Google's Mayer countered that Google's goal isn't to force users to have to think about search, and that the company will continue to keep the search interfaces simple. One of the Google principles is that it your "mother" can't figure out how to use a feature, it shouldn't be released. Manber believes if people know how a search engine works, they will be less prone to making bad queries.

Mander, a former professor of computer science, has more of an engineer's viewpoint, while Mayer (also a computer scientist) thinks more like a user, but they are both right. Search should be really simple to use and deliver great results, but knowing how it works is helpful for power users. The evolution of search technology and the user experience is an iterative process. Solving the myriad of search-related problems, with the amount of data online and data types increasing exponentially, is a world-class challenge. In an interview I did last week with Manber, he said: "We are in the beginning. Search is a solved problem. There are lots of things that can be done. I've been doing search for 15 years and every 5 years it's science fiction, and I expect five years from now it will still be science fiction." As the underlying technology improves (more personalized, natural language, more sources and relevance, guided navigation, etc.), users get more of what they want with less effort.

alainMedstory's Alain Rappaport has developed vertical search technology that brings domain knowledge into the equation. Rappaport's background is in artificial intelligence, and his software applies AI techniques to search the medical data and render results. Medstory provides clients in pharmaceutical and biotech sectors with software that knows where to look for data and extract its meaning, applying domain knowledge about diseases, therapies, interactions and mechanisms as well as about people and organizations.

"Generic search technology works very well for general search, but it starts to degrade not very gracefully when addressing the needs of users in particular verticals, such as healthcare and finance," Rappaport said. "You need to embed knowledge about the domain and automate as much as you can so it can acquire elements of the domain by itself."

It seems like the last five years of search history was more about monetization and continuity than delivering more relevance and personalization. Based on the panel discussion, the next five years might yield more in the way of personalized answers than lists of links...

Topic: Browser

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  • You'll need user input

    I've been in the Internet space since '98 and have seen lots of attempts at implicit personalization before. I think in the future you will have to get explicit input from the user to create the proper context for search. Let the user tell the search engine which results are on target, and which are off. Let them build up a vocabulary for their search to help personalize the search and ranking algorithms. Other methods just won't have the same power as when the user tells you what they need.
    • Well Said

      It is surprising that experts have missed this basic point.

      Extremes of simplification and sophistication have left the Search Performance very disappointing. What is worse, there is not much to expect.

      It is time to turn to published literature on library science & information retrieval and combine some imagination. Immense and quick improvements are possible.

      Check out.

      Putcha V. Narasimham,
      putchavn@yahoo.com pvn@hyd.cmc.net.in
  • Searching becomes more and more difficult these days

    As one of the first ever users of the Internet (started back in 1989), I have been using search engines ever since the old days of the graphic-less web.

    At the time, the Internet was not as commercialised as it is today. In fact it was merely a network of university websites and some pr0n sites. Search technology has been significantly changed since those times. Of course there is much more content to search now. However, my point is that I used to spend less time to find what I was looking for than the time it takes nowadays.

    I used to be a Google fanatic (and I still am probably as I rarely use a different search engine) a few years back. But for search terms which are not too commonly searched, the Google results are very poor. I have to rephrase my search terms many times, in order to find the right information sites. And this is my complaint about where the search industry is heading to.

    Search engines are increasingly focusing resources on satisfying their advertisers, rather than the people searching. This (in my opinion) is the result of the commercialised search industry.

    What is more annoying is the numerous times I have clicked on the "dissatisfied with the results" link on the search results page to report a spammer, whose tens (if not hundreds) of duplicated sites are the only available results in the first 5 (result) pages. A couple of months later, the same results appear in Google.

    Concluding, I think that the search technology (does not matter if it is Google's, Yahoo's or MSN's) needs a complete re-thinking and re-design as it does not provide the desired results (most of the times). More attention should be given to the end users, rather than the advertisers.

    Pavlos Skoufis,
    • If Information Seekers Pay, Will Search Results Improve?

      Palvos Skoufis, excellent summary of current search woes.

      Commercial forces seem to be all too powerful. Otherwise the Search Giants with all their monetary and intellectual resources would not have allowed their services to degrade to this extent and still (pretend to) be working to improve search performance!

      If the serious information seekers are large in number and they are willing to pay nominal charges for Precision and Recall of the information they seek, will the search results improve?

      They should, because basic technology is well established and can be extended easily.

      A viable business model exists with registered users and information providers / Analysts. It would be self-regulating and evolving because of the symmetric nature of internet (publishers and readers have equal opportunity to communicate).

      Advertisement has no place in this model--as pointed out, that is the cause of degrading the purpose of the service.

      Putcha V. Narasimham,
      putchavn@yahoo.com pvn@hyd.cmc.net.in
  • Yes, no revelations

    With all the scholars and industrial search leaders contributing, I hoped to find some good diagnosis and prognosis.

    It is heartening to find the first two comments zeroing in on the key factors.

    What is needed a more Expressive Query Formulation Facility?not personalization. Secondly, extreme simplicity or sophistication should never be the objectives. What is primary is ?How well the purpose of the user is served?.

    It is now clear that information seeker is not the prime user the Search Giants want to serve!

    Putcha V. Narasimham
    putchavn@yahoo.com pvn@hyd.cmc.net.in