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Google Steps Gingerly Toward Search As Application

By - May 05, 2010

New Goog Interface.png

When Bing launched, I framed the new service from Microsoft as an important step in the evolution of search:

I actually don’t think Microsoft is trying to out-Google Google with Bing. I think it’s trying to build a different kind of search application, one that sits on top of commodity search and helps people make decisions in a new way. Done right, this totally breaks the AdWords model that has driven search so far. To me, that is a very big step in a new direction, and one that Google cannot afford to make.

Today Google has decided it can’t afford NOT to make this step, at least somewhat. The company has decided to create a left hand nav bar that pushes the service toward search as an app.

Now, when I mentioned that idea in a briefing yesterday, the Google rep I spoke to wasn’t eager to confirm the concept, but to my mind, this is exactly what’s going on. Bing (and Ask before it) has built a service on top of commodity search results, one that does not require you to go back and forth, back and forth, but rather instrument your search session using intelligent, persistent navigation. This is exactly what Google’s new UI lets you do.

The real question, of course, comes down to money. Does this mean fewer clicks on paid ads for Google? I asked that question, and the response was telling: I’m paraphrasing, but in essence Google told me “we’ve found that this new approach increases the chance that users will find the information they are looking for.” And in Google’s parlance, ads are information.

Of course Google would never roll out such a significant UI update without rigorously testing the impact on AdWords clicks, and indeed Google confirmed to me that this is the most tested UI change Google’s ever made. Indeed, the left nav bar has been seen in the wild for several years.Goog Update nav.png

What’s on the bar is worth grokking as well. First, “Web” has been replaced with “Everything.” That’s pretty meta – maybe we should change the name of the Web 2.0 Summit to the Everything 2.0 Summit – but I digress. Second, what is on the bar changes based on your search in real time. And one of the options includes “Updates” – their way of incorporating Facebook, Twitter and other real time data. A “Something Different” link gives you related searches, among many other new or consolidated features on the left nav. A full overview can be found at SEL.

Google told me that the actual underlying results – both organic SERPs as well as the ads that accompany them – have not changed. This is a new skin over Google’s results, not a shift in how those results are determined. That’s important, but not entirely the story.

The story is that this shift will change how we interact with Google, what our search query stream looks like, and therefore, what kind of SERPs and ads will be produced. I am certain Google has modeled this shift, and equally certain the company believes this change will impact their bottom line in a positive way. Of course, the company could be mistaken. Only future quarterly results will prove whether or not Google got it right.

What do you all make of the changes?

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The Gap Scenario

By - April 30, 2010

mindthegap.png* It’s been a longstanding thesis of mine that Google’s ability to reorder information in microseconds, based on our declared intent through a search query, has habituated us to expect an immediate and relevant response from nearly every website – and in particular, commercial sites. In time, I think this expectation will leak into realspace as well. In this post, I explore what that might look like.  

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been using what I call “The Gap Scenario” to illustrate how marketing is going to change in the next few years, in particular as it relates to the intersection of physical and digital spaces. Yes, I’m talking about Gap, the retail clothing brand, but I’m also talking about the “gap” between where we are as an industry, and where we are headed.

Yesterday I got a chance to talk on camera about the concept (it’s in the first ten or so minutes), but if you’re like me, it’s sometimes easier to read than watch video. And to be honest, until I write something down, I’m never entirely sure I’ve thought it through. So here goes.

Imagine it is a few years from now. Not much has changed in your life (as much as, say, it has in the past three years. We often get a bit ahead of ourselves when it comes to thinking in the future). You happen by a Gap store, and eager for a bit of retail therapy, you walk through the door.

By walking through Gap’s door, you have declared an intent – just as certainly as if you had entered “Gap clothes” into a search engine.

So what happens next? What response does your “search” elicit?*

In a few years, this is what I think will be pretty standard. First, you’ll have a smart phone on you, one that is running several background processes (think of them as “ambient apps”) at all times. One of those processes listens for signals coming from the environment around you, and when it finds a signal that it finds may be useful, it responds to that signal with a ping saying “I am here.”

This is why, when you cross the portal into Gap, your phone buzzes (assuming you’ve instrumented it to buzz. It might ring, or it might stay silent, because you know as soon as you go into Gap, there’ll be a response waiting for you. My point is that the response is immediate).

As you cross into Gap, you take out your phone and take a look at what Gap has to say to you. And what might that be? Well, it depends on any number of factors, but my guess is the Gap App will welcome you into the store, and perhaps ask if you are enjoying the jeans you purchased at the downtown store last month. It also shows that four of your friends have recently been in the store lately, and another three have purchased something online. Would you like to see what they bought?

Another alert reminds you that it’s been a few years since you bought anything for your daughter, who must be growing up. Might you be interested in a Gap tee or scarf most favored by girls in her age group? Special 15% off applies for folks like you, who have “Liked” Gap on Facebook.

Interested, you stroll over to the Teen section and see a blouse your daughter might like. You hold your phone up to it, focusing the camera on the tag. The Gap app immediately scans the tag and provides another search result, including price, available inventory instore and online, customer reviews culled from various sources, and recommendations for related items, complete with a map icon which, if pressed, shows where those items are in the store.

But for whatever reason, you put your phone in your pocket and head for the mens department. You came in for your own retail therapy, after all. You know that if you want to buy that blouse, you’ve already shown an interest in it, and at any time you can complete the purchase through the app, or, importantly, by asking any Gap associate throughout the store.

And that leads us to the other side of this scenario. When you walked through the front door, you were immediately identified as a returning customer. All the data about your interaction with Gap, as well as any other related data that you have agreed can be publicly known about you, has already been sent to the store, and to the mobile devices of every Gap associate working in the store today. You know this, and further, you expect anyone you might ask a question of to know as much about you as you care to reveal. In a way, it’s both comforting and empowering.

As you head upstairs to the mens department, you pass a Gap associate who smiles, checks her phone (which thanks to something like Presence has lit up with your profile) and says hello. The social action of her checking her phone as you approach is something you consider normal, and you wait for what she might say next.

And what she says next – the next turn in your conversation with Gap – will be critical. Will she be human, empathetic, nuanced? Or will she be corporate, stunted, odd?

Well, that depends, in the end, on how Gap trains its employees, and whether Gap allows them to be themselves. Does Gap hire folks with a high social IQ? Or does it hire folks who secretly hate this data-driven corporate shit, so they grit their teeth as they ask you if they can help?

An important question indeed. But this day, you’ve come to your favorite store, where the employees are fluent in the dance between social data, commercial intent, and real time physical interaction. Your associate simply nods and says “let me know if I can help you,” smiles, and lets you pass. She reads from your face and body language that you don’t want too much more than that. She was right.

At the mens department you find your favorite jeans, but don’t want to dig through the piles to find your size. Instead you point your phone at the stack, and the Gap App tells you the store, alas, is out of size 34. Would you like to purchase them online, and have them sent to your home? They’ll be there later today, because a store across town has them in stock, and Gap provides same day delivery within a 50 mile radius. You press “Yes”, the purchase is confirmed, and, your retail desires fulfilled, you head toward the door.

As you leave, the associate you passed earlier thanks you for your purchase.

Well that was pleasant, you think, as you walk down the street. Out comes your phone again, and you bring up the Gap application again. Maybe you will get that blouse for your daughter, after all.

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Now, think about all the elements that have to work in concert for this scenario to play out. To my mind, the easiest part is the technology and the platforms for that tech – they exist already. The smart phones, the app world, the social instrumentation – all solved. What’s not solved are the business processes that sew it all together. This scenario incorporates many distinct practices of traditional marketing. Customer service, CRM, direct marketing, instore and online promotions, and even brand marketing – because above the line brand work is what ties it all together by making the promise this scenario will pay off.

Getting all those pieces to work in concert is the hard part. My experience with large brands and the agencies which support them is that they have necessarily specialized, creating silos that are very good at what they do (direct marketing, CRM, etc) but not very good at working across the organization. That’s going to have to change. It’ll happen first with retail brands like Gap, but it’ll come quickly to consumer packaged goods (who will want to answer the search even if it happens on a supermarket shelf) and small businesses as well.

Helping them make the transition is a huge opportunity. More on that in another post.

*replete with MOLRS, of course.

Apple Makes Its Move to Become the Google of App World

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siri.jpgThis is very interesting news, but not unexpected if you’ve been paying attention. Note in the past I’ve predicted that Apple will not do web search, but will do “app search,” because app search is essentially broken, if you can even call it search to begin with. It’s more like directory navigation at this point.

Today Apple announced acquisition of Siri, a personal assistant app that includes voice recognition and search capabilities. As I wrote about Apple previously:

What Apple needs is a search engine that “crawls” apps, app content, and app usage data, then surfaces recommendations as well as content . To do this, mobile apps will need to make their content available for Apple to crawl. And why wouldn’t you if you’re Yelp, for example? Or Facebook, for that matter? An index of apps+social signal+app content would be quite compelling. What Apple will NOT do is crawl the entire web.

And as my colleague James Gross reminded me, I also said this in a recent interview on SEL:

Look at the valuable information that you can extract from how any one of us interacts with a well-designed application, then create a dataset for that. Say I use the New York Transit application to navigate my way through New York for 3 or 4 days… all of the questions and back-and-forth that I use that app for, which is essentially a structured search session—right? Now, match that against a set of data which is the transit map. I say, “I need to go over here. I want to go over there. I prefer this route over that route,”—that becomes a dataset that should inform other searches that I’m making on things that seemingly are unrelated but may not be. That should be available as metadata for future searches. And figuring how to inform that is as important as parsing the line or the spoken phrase that I’m making in the moment.

Now, if I take that spoken phrase and go and search for “Chicago rental car” four months after interacting with that New York Transit map application, how can we take the metadata from that interaction with New York and inform the appropriate response in Chicago. Perhaps the best suggestions would be, “Hey, you know what? You don’t need to rent a car. You can use the Chicago Transit. Here’s an app for it. You can get from the airport to everywhere you want to go without having to rent a car. Plus, you’ll save $150 which we know is a goal of yours because you’ve been interacting with the Mint application and it said that a goal of yours is that you want to save $200 a month and here’s a way that you do that”?

Tying all that together, that’s the Holy Grail because then it starts to understand you. If you only parse just the query, even if you get the natural language right and the intent right, you’re missing the whole person.

It’s now clear to me that Apple is very serious about being the Google of the post-HTML, app-driven Internet. But so is Google, so is Microsoft, and there are certainly going to be other players to boot. (Er…Like HP, which just bought Palm and plans on “doubling down” on the Web OS.) Game on.

  

Tynt Gets Funding, Searchblog Gets Tynt

By - April 16, 2010

TC broke the news today that Tynt, a search interception and user behavior data company, got a big round of funding from Panorama Capital, which is also an investor in FM. I’ve installed the Tynt service on Searchblog and I’d like to get your response. I think what the service does is quite clever and useful both to publishers and users. However, it does create new user experience for those of us who cut and paste on sites, and I’m interested if folks find the new approach worthy.

The service works like this: when you copy a snippet of text from a site with Tynt, you’ll see that Tynt appends a unique URL into the pasted text (for example, see the graphic below where I’ve copied and pasted a snippet from a Searchblog post into an email).

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This URL both redirects readers back to the location from which the snippet was pasted, as well as notifies the Tynt service of the actions taken. This gives Tynt a database of user behavior – a signal of intention – that could become quite valuable. At scale, this means Tynt can, for example, build a Digg-like view of the web – without ever having to create a Digg. It all works based on behavior most readers do all the time anyway.

This data is also surfaced to publishers, which can help them improve their editorial and user experience, among other things.

Tynt also has a pop up service (see graphic below from TC – I have not implemented this yet and until recently the company did not disclose this service publicly) that identifies when certain cut and pasted text is likely to be a signal of search intent. This is based on examining the string of words that is copied. Short phrases – of a few words, for example – usually means the reader is doing a search – they are cut and pasting the text into a search bar or another search browser window.

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Think about that behavior – probably something you do a lot (I certainly do). What happens? Well, you are reading a story, and come across a term or word you don’t understand, or want to research more. You highlight it, go to the search bar (or open another tab with Google in it), copy the text, paste it into Google, and find yourself on another page (the Google search page.)

Who wins in this scenario? Well, usually Google does (or whichever search engine is used). They get the search, and the probable revenue from that search (as we know, many folks click on paid search links!).

Who loses? Well, the publisher, because some number of folks who execute this behavior will leave the publisher’s page and never return. And the publisher never sees that search revenue either, even though it was the publisher which sparked the search intention in the first place. One could argue that the user loses as well, because they often run off into a back and forth search game that distracts them from their initial focus on the article they were reading.

Tynt changes this game, in that it both keeps the reader on the page, and intercepts the search behavior (and potential revenue). This I find quite interesting (as does Google, I am sure, and Bing, which I bet would love to power those Tynt searches which otherwise might go to Google…). For its major partners, Tynt splits revenues with publishers, bypassing the search engines. The company already has deals in place with scores of major publishers representing billions of page view a month. It claims to be doing 100 million searches. That makes it a player, one the major engines will have to deal with.

One to watch.

Me On Search

By - March 19, 2010

Over at SEL Gord Hotchkiss has published an interview with me on the future of search. From it:

We’re going through a shift in how folks are understanding what search really means to them. And what it means to them is “I have a need and I need it fulfilled, and I’m going to use the online medium to fulfill it in some way.” We had a very, very basic, well-understood use case for 10 years, which was Google or “like Google”—you put in a couple keywords and you get a response back. And that framework of searching and coming back with the best document to answer a query is morphing. People are asking far more complicated questions now and they’re demanding far more nuanced answers, simply because they know they’re out there….

…Search as an application where your first search isn’t the search itself but rather the search for the right application is a very, very different use case. You have the market influence and dominance of one player splintered into tens of thousands of players. You or I sitting in our office over the weekend could come up with the absolute best structured search application for determining who should be your arborist to cut your trees. And that’s a threat to Google Local Search. If the best application to determine a plumber is the plumbing app on an iPhone—you download it and it automatically pulls all the local results from Yahoo!, Bing, and Google, then pulls all the reviews from Yelp and Angie’s List, then cross-compares that with complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau and Diamond Certified—if that’s the app you use, where’s Google in all of that, right?

The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Social Search Engine

By - February 02, 2010

Screen shot 2010-02-02 at 6.02.56 PM.pngThe folks at Aardvark have posted an ambitious paper over on the ‘vark blog. Titled after Brin and Page’s original “Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”, the paper presents the Aardvark engine and, in its authors’ words: “describes the fundamental differences between the traditional “Library” paradigm of web search — in which answers are found in existing online content — and the new “Village” paradigm of social search — in which answers arise in conversation with the people in your network.”

I have read most of the paper, which has been accepted at WWW 2010 (it reminded me of all the search papers I read in preparation for writing The Search), and found a lot worthy of interest.

First, the paper’s authors, both of whom have worked at Google, clearly have a sense of potential history here, in that they not only crib Google’s original paper’s title, they also mirror the first line (substituting “Aardvark” for “Google”, of course). Now that’s some b*lls. Of course, when Larry and Sergey first presented Google, they couldn’t even get their paper accepted (it took three tries, if I recall correctly. Someone should write a book about that…).

Second, it’s unusual for a Valley startup to lay out its architecture and technological specs as willingly as Aardvark has. There’s a lot of math in here that I couldn’t parse even if I had the will to try.

Third, we learn some cool things about how Aardvark works. Check this quote out: “…unlike quality scores like PageRank [13], Aardvark’s quality score aims to measure intimacy rather than authority. And unlike the relevance scores in corpus-based search

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engines, Aardvark’s relevance score aims to measure a user’s potential to answer a query, rather than a document’s existing capability to answer a query.”

Also interesting: ” this involves modeling a user as a content- generator, with probabilities indicating the likelihood she will likely respond to questions about given topics. Each topic in a user profile has an associated score, depending upon the confidence appropriate to the source of the topic. In addition, Aardvark learns over time which topics not to send a user questions about…”

There’s a lot more like this in the paper, it’s worth reading. The authors even did a test of Aardvark results against Google, with the results being something of a push (see the last page for details). Not bad for an upstart service.

Lastly, we learn a lot about the service, thanks to a number of charts, including something about Aardvark’s growth, which I had not really anticipated. It’s up and to the right, as you can see from the chart.

Google Rolling Out Social Search: But Does It Leverage Facebook?

By - January 27, 2010

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Forget the iPad, today Google is taking another step toward its stated goal of “making search more social.” There’s a lot of goodness in here, in terms of features and approach, but it’s just silly to pretend you can do any of this without directly addressing the 400 million-person elephant in the room called Facebook. Put simply: I can’t figure out if this new service uses my Facebook social graph. And to my mind, that’s a problem.

From the blog post announcing the public beta of social search (first announced at Web 2 late last year):

We think there’s tremendous potential for social information to improve search, and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. We’re leaving a “beta” label on social results because we know there’s a lot more we can do. If you want to get the most out of Social Search right away, get started by creating a Google profile, where you can add links to your other public online social services.

Indeed – a lot more, like make it really easy to use your Facebook social graph, the way tons of other sites and apps do. Why not just use Facebook Connect? Hang on a tick, the video giving us an overview of the service says once you create that Google Profile, you can add connections via Blogger, Twitter, and “any other online networks you might be a part of” (45 seconds in). Might that include Facebook?

OK dear readers, I’m going to do it. I’m gonna make a Google Profile, just to find out…. Well, I’m still a bit perplexed. You can add any URL as a “Link” in your profile, so I added my Facebook pages. However, once I got through the initial form (which was not simple – I had to fill out all the info I already did with Facebook and LinkedIn, and my own name is not available as a profile URL, not /johnbattelle, not jbattelle. Darn! I picked /johnlinwoodbattelle, so now you all know my middle name…) Er, anyway, there *was* a prompt to “Share It On Facebook” after all that…

Aha! Maybe this will get my Facebook social graph goodness into Google Social Search?

Not that I could tell. Just a simply “share on Facebook” implementation, declaring my profile to my FB pals. But no deep integration. As far as I can tell, my Facebook social graph will not inform my social searchin’ on Google. As I understand it from reading previous coverage of the product, Google social search *will* leverage FriendFeed, recently purchased by Facebook. But as far as I can tell, it does not leverage Facebook proper.

And that, to my mind, is just silly. Silly in the main, because as a consumer, clear, direct, and transparent integration with Facebook would be a huge *win* for my understanding of Google’s social searching. Wouldn’t it? Or am I missing something? (Besides the competitive issues, of course…)

I’ve pinged Google and other sources to find out if I’m just deeply in the dark….

Update: Google has provided me an answer to my initial question:

“If someone links to his Facebook account from his Google profile, Social Search may surface that user’s public profile page. These are the same public profile pages already available on a search of Google.com and other search engines today. While we’re interested to continue expanding the comprehensiveness of Social Search, we do not currently use your Facebook connections as part of Google Social Search.”

What I’d like to know then is this: Why not?

The Evolving Search Interface: Mobile Drives Search As App

By - January 15, 2010

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I’ve said before that search interfaces, stuck in the command line interface of DOS, will at some point evolve into applications on top of a commodity search index. I further opined that Bing, in particular Bing’s limited but compelling visual search, was just such an example: search as an interactive, rich application, as opposed to search as a list of results.  

The commodity of search results is critical, but as we shift our usage to the mobile web, the use case for a list of results weakens. Instead, as this Bizweek article points out, we’re using apps. On their face, these apps don’t seem like search at all. Except they are.

Take the popular iPhone app Exit Strategy, for example (at left). The app helps folks navigate the NY transit system. In essence, it consolidates a subset of search queries and answers them with a combination of domain-specific structured results and an elegant user interface. The structured dataset is the NY transit map and schedule, the UI is based on the iPhone’s unique ecosystem of interface. The result: No one with this app is Googling “best route Bronx Midtown“. Instead, there’s an app for that.

Google can’t help but see this as a threat. For nearly every structured set of results, there’ll be an app for that, if there isn’t already. To my mind, the question becomes one of using search to find the best apps. I wonder how Google is surfacing iPhone apps as answers to questions pertinent to destroying its own query volume? For it seems to me that a very good result for the query above, if done on Google over an iPhone, would be “Exit Strategy.”

Huh. Yet another reason to lean into Android, no doubt.

Search Getting Worse? What Did I Mean?!

By - January 06, 2010

(Excerpted from a longer post on BingTweets, part of a series I’ve been writing, underwritten by Bing).

In my predictions this week I seemed unusually glum about the state of search, writing: Traditional search results will deteriorate to the point that folks begin to question search’s validity as a service.

This statement did not go unnoticed by folks in the industry, and I received quite a few emails, Tweets, and comments asking what on earth I meant. Well, in the post I tried to explain:

This does not mean people will stop using search – habits do not die that quickly and search will continue to have significant utility. But we are in the midst of a significant transition in search – as I’ve recently written, we are asking far more complicated questions of search, ones that search is simply not set up to answer. This incongruence is not really fair to blame on search, but so it goes. Add to this the problem of an entire ecosystem set up to game AdWords, and the table is set.

Let me use this final BingTweets entry to expand on what I meant.

My statement about how we’re asking “far more complicated questions of search” is a riff on the writings I’ve done here on the BingTweets blog, specifically, my three part series on “Decisions Are Never Easy” (1, 2, 3). In short, I find that all of us are expecting search, a technology built to answer one-dimensional questions like “capital of Yemen”, to answer questions that have more than one semantic meaning (“Yemen al qaeda leadership diplomacy”). As a reader (and search entrepreneur) put it in an email to me: “When people move to complex queries (defined as two or more semantically disjunct terms), search breaks down. All it is really fit to do is deliver all the permutations. Imagine a 5-term query, all semantically disjunct. …. such as … “green tea, life quality, life expectancy, cancer, tumor”. Did you ever try and read 40,000 documents?”

Well no, none of us ever try to read all the documents search brings back – all the “permutations” that search faithfully (and rather unintelligently) renders to us. We all know by now that when we ask a complicated question of search, search will pretty much throw everything and the kitchen sink at us. And we don’t want all that information. We want our answer!

I have no doubt that such an answer is coming, but before it does, we have to go through a period of disappointment. ……. (continued)