Future of search in personalization

Search development efforts becoming more social, relevant and contextual in new decade, moving beyond the desktop to personal mobile devices, say industry watchers and players.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

The future of search in the new decade will see continued focus on deeper social context and speedier generation of relevant results, alongside a growing presence on mobile devices and personalized search, say industry observers and players.

Andrew McGlinchey, head of product management for Google Southeast Asia, told ZDNet Asia that search will continue to be "faster and more personalized" in 2011. Elaborating on the search giant's efforts, he said Google is beefing up efforts in Google Instant and focusing on innovating its search engine in four directions: personalization, localization, social context and relevancy.

In an e-mail interview, McGlinchey explained that by taking into account factors such as a user's geographical location or social connections, search results will be precise and specifically tailored to the individual user. This also means there is increased relevancy since the right information is obtained in the quickest possible time, he said.

"Search is becoming more dynamic and less static, and search engines of the future will be better in part because they will understand more about the individual user," stated the Google executive, who noted that users would still have control over their personal information and the search engine's use of personal data will be transparent and only when permitted by the user.

In a blog post this week, Google announced that when a person searches via its engine, social search results will be displayed more prominently and be listed among search results based on relevance. In the past, past, such results only appeared at the bottom.

Search today runs on a combination of social, real-time and contextual, according to Yvonne Chang, vice president and managing director of Yahoo Southeast Asia.

Yahoo, which search is powered by Microsoft's Bing, is focused on innovating the user's overall search experience, Chang told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail.

In addition, the Internet company will also be investing in contextual search to help people find more relevant content by "getting in front of users at the right place and at the right time, and presenting them with experiences tailored to their ideas", she said.

Contextual search analyzes the page that is being read and provides a list of related search results, she explained. Also, while a user is reading a Webpage, contextual search will present additional related info, encouraging users to chase those links, she added.

Out of the desktop
According to Chang, the search landscape is getting ready to resolve gaps in user experience as the adoption of new devices grows. Search queries are going beyond the search box, she said, pointing to Sketch-a-Search, Yahoo's mobile search app which lets users "draw" a circle around an area on a map to narrow search results specific to that location.

McGlinchey agreed that search engines are taking on new forms since the early days when "it was all text". For instance, he said online users can now conduct search queries using photos via Google Goggles, and with their own voices via Voice Search.

Both features, introduced over the last two years, already indicate that mobile apps are a long-running trend, if not the new frontier for search, said Adam Bunn, director of search marketing agency, Greenlight.

Smartphone users already feel the pull of their respective appstores as much as, if not more than, a traditional search engine, Bunn noted. What this means is that instead of visiting a Web site to seek out answers, mobile users will install an app which can answer a question and other similar questions in the long term, he said.

With the mobile arena growing in importance, he predicted that search engines in 2011 will start to recommend apps that may be relevant or contextually associated to a user's search query.

"Mobile apps will manifest as another type of vertical search [and] be pulled into the normal results as a universal search element," Bunn pointed out.

James Roy, senior analyst with China Market Research Group, said there is significant room for growth in search centered around specific apps for mobile devices such as smartphone and tablets.

Rather than accessing a mobile Web browser, users will find it easier to use a specific app that can list restaurants in the vicinity of their location and yield search results within this context including relevant reviews, addresses and phone numbers, Roy explained in an e-mail.

He added that the overarching trend for search engine activities this new decade is focused on being "faster"--that is, delivering results in real-time--and "smarter", yielding more relevant results.

The two factors of speed and intelligence in search are closely intertwined, he said, noting that people do not want to wait as they search, and they do not want to waste time on the wrong search.

Social search will continue to grow in importance because it is "smarter" in identifying results more likely to be of relevance to a user, based on social connections particular to that user, Roy said.

Besides integrating social data to search, such as the Facebook-Bing partnership, he said social search will also be increasingly prevalent in the form of question-and-answer (Q&A) services or networks as seen in the rise of startups such as Formspring as well as Internet bigwigs that include Facebook, which launched Questions, and Google's Aardvark acquisition.

With Q&A-powered social search, he explained that users do not need to be familiar with using the right search terms or keywords to get better results and the results are easy to sift through.

Traditional search still important
Roy acknowledged that audio and picture search services such as Shazam and Google Goggles are useful in very specific cases and can help "fill gaps that traditional search isn't very good for, like identifying a photo or music".

However, he also pointed out that such search features are more suitable for occasional than everyday use, and will probably continue to be used only in niche areas.

He noted that traditional search--characterized by keywords and algorithms--will be the mainstay of mainstream users.

"I'm not convinced that traditional search will be overtaken by more specialized searches because the vast majority of searches still start with an idea that is best conveyed through words than through other media."

Greenlight's Bunn concurred that traditional search will "remain as important as ever" in the new decade but will continue to evolve in terms of the types of results it will produce. These will be more diverse and include news, videos, products and places, apart from the usual Web page results, he added.

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