The major search companies have expressed varying ideas on how Web searching will evolve over the next few years, with MSN claiming that there will be significant changes in the user interface of search engines and Google contending that changes in the underlying technology will be more important.
Representatives from Google, Yahoo and MSN Search came together at the Wharton Technology Conference in Philadelphia on Friday to discuss the future of search technologies.
Saleel Sathé, a lead product manager in Microsoft's MSN Search division predicted that there will be big changes in the user interface of Internet search engines — so that users no longer type a few words in a single search box.
"Search engines have shot themselves in the foot by providing a search box, where users provide relatively little information," Sathé said, during a panel on search technology at the conference.
"Over the next five years we will see significant improvements in how [user interfaces] operate. The average search query is 2.3 words... but if you asked a librarian for information you would not just give them 2.3 words — you would give them the opportunity to give you the rich detailed answer you want."
But Matthew Glotzbach, the director of product management for Google's enterprise products, disagreed, claiming that advances in technology will mean that users will not need to provide more information.
"In the distant future we will not be able to get you to take more action, because we will get close enough with what you give us. A lot of emphasis will continue on doing that in the background — getting the technology to figure out [what you want]," he said. "Larry Page [the co-founder] of Google often says, 'the perfect search engine would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want'."
Search technologies are still in their infancy, according to Glotzback, who indicated "we've by no means hit the point where search is perfect."
Bradley Horowitz, the head of technology development at the search and marketplace group at Yahoo, claimed the next big innovation will be in "social search". He said that Google's PageRank system, which ranks the search results according to the number and importance of links from other Web sites, was a vital improvement, but that users rather than Webmasters should be able to influence the ranking of search results.
"Where is the next big breakthrough that gets beyond PageRank? PageRank confers a privilege to Webmasters who vote by proxy for all of us. What we think is the next major breakthrough is social search. It basically democratises the notion of relevance and lets ordinary users decide what's important for themselves and other users," said Horowitz.
He said Yahoo is hoping to leverage its community of users to develop social search technologies.