What Is Search Now? Disjoined.

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Today I answered a question in email for a reporter who works for Wired UK. He asked smart questions, as I would expect from a Wired writer. (Some day I’ll tell you all my personal story of Wired UK – I lived over there for the better part of a year back in 1997, trying to make that magazine work. I mostly failed – but it’s up and running strong now.)

In any case, one question in particular struck me. The writer is preparing a piece on the future of search. (I’ll link to it when it comes out). What big problems, he asked, still plague search?

That got me thinking. Here’s my answer:

The largest issue with search is that we learned about it when the web was young, when the universe was “complete” – the entire web was searchable! Now our digital lives are utterly fractured – in apps, in walled gardens like Facebook, across clunky interfaces like those in automobiles or Comcast cable boxes. Re-uniting our digital lives into one platform that is “searchable” is to me the largest problem we face today. 

It may be worth expanding on that sentiment. When it broke out in the mid 1990s, the web was society’s first at-scale digital artifact.  It spread in orders of ten, first thousands, then millions, then hundreds of millions of pages – and on it went, to the billions it now encompasses. Everybody wanted to “be” on the web – a creator class started making pages and companies and services, a consumer class started “surfing” this vast new digital object, and our collective conscience marvelled at what we had created together: millions of small pieces loosely joined. And the key and unappreciated point is this: those pieces were indeed joined.

It was that joining – through links, of course – that made search possible, that created what is unquestionably the most powerful and lasting new company of the past 20 years – Google.* But as I wrote in Why Hath Google Forsaken Us? A Meditation, Google’s core model – built on the open, linked world of the web – is under threat from the advance of the iPhone and the app, the Facebook and the Path, the automobile console, the Xbox, the cable box, and countless other “unlinked” digital artifacts.

Google knows this. Why else invest so much in Android, in Google+, in Motorola (it’s not just phones, it’s also cable boxes), in self-driving cars, for goodness sake? Google wants a foothold wherever digital information is created and shared, and man, are we creating a sh*t ton of it. Problem is, we’re not making it easy – or even possible – to link all this stuff together, should we care to.

Which takes me back to that core question the Wired reporter asked me: What’s the biggest problem plaguing search? In short, it’s that our digital world is no longer small pieces loosely joined. It’s also big chunks separate and apart. And that makes search – in its most broadest interpretation – damn near impossible.

Which leads to another question: What then, is search? Of course, the Wired reporter asked me that as well. My answer:

Search is now more than a web destination and a few words plugged into a box. Search is a mode, a method of interaction with the physical and virtual worlds. What is Siri but search? What are apps like Yelp or Foursquare, but structured search machines? Search has become embedded into everything, and has reached well beyond its web-based roots.

So we all search now, all the time, across all manner of artifacts, large and small. But our searches are not federated – we can’t search across these repositories, as we could across that wonderful, vast, loosely joined early world of the web. We’ve lost the connection.

Call me a fool, but I think the need for that connection will be so strong, that in time, we’ll sew all our digital artifacts back together again. At least, I certainly hope we will. Right now, it ain’t looking so likely – what with patent wars, wagon circling by big platforms, and the like. But I’m an optimist – and I hope you are as well.

* Sorry but Facebook isn’t there – yet. And Microsoft and Apple, well, they may make a play for that crown either 20 years ago or 20 years hence, but if you ask me for the most important company ever that launched as a native web business, the answer is indisputably Google.




38 thoughts on “What Is Search Now? Disjoined.”

  1. A search result is a particular type of recommendation, one in which a word or words provide context for the recommendation. Thinking in terms of this more general concept of context and resulting recommendation seems to me most useful in projecting where “search” is going (e.g., Siri and her progeny).

    1. All true, but who wants to have to think about which sub-service to use to ask the question? Perhaps a meta layer above it all will grow….

      1. Yeah — but be careful what you wish for because meta-layers have historically really taken hold as a result of one player ultimately dominating (e.g., Windows OS, Google Search, etc.). Lock-in effects of personalization seem at least as strong as any IT layer we’ve ever seen before. And, of course, lock-in leads to winner-takes-all economics . . .

      2. I think it can be somewhat solved by removing that ‘having to think’ part of the equation…if the sub-service is placed in the right places, for the right situations, then the users don’t really have to ‘think’ about where/how to search…they just search.

        At least that’s a big part of the thinking behind my project right now…blog and comment search (I call it ‘deep conversation search’), that is accessible directly from the blog (if the blogger chooses to offer it as an option for their readers).

        BTW – here’s an example search of just the battellmedia deep conversation universe for ‘future of search’: http://gawk.it/r8 (and of course if you like it, would love to have you install gawk.it as the search feature around here!)

  2. That seems like metric and I am more acquainted with standard. is a sh*t ton equal to a cr@pload? If not, what is the conversion factor? 😉

    Seriously, thanks for the piece.

    Final score? Google wins.

    Thank you for the piece.

  3. It is good to see John talk about this important subject again. Two quick points:

    i. Google has been a force for good but also bad. Their business has been built on “don’t ask for permission, seek forgiveness later” and that strategy is coming back to bite it in the rear (eg. Apple’s thermonuclear stance with Android). If Google had returned a portion of its vast profits to the creators and owners of content they continually crawl and index then people would have trusted the “do no evil” mission of the company. Instead, it has directly resulted in the balkanization of information that you talk about.

    ii. Web search is predicated by an intent defined by the keywords entered into the search box. But, this is only one half of the story. At the other end is satisfying an undefined intent (call it autonomous discovery). Search is about finding things and autonomous discovery is about things finding us. As you say, the word search means many things today but discovery in the autonomous sense is about no keyword search which will have a significant impact as mobile devices become the norm for billions of people, information continues to grow inexorably and for consumers who really don’t want to perform keyword search to find things of interest and value.

    1. The convenience of discovering things of interest without doing anything should be of value to a wider spectrum of the population. Would not be surprised if the number of Discovery queries are greater than keyword and voice-Search queries in the long run.

      1. Interesting. The top 10 News apps now are all discovery related, and there is little keywording that goes into the input. Rather, it’s topical at best. I’m not sure if this is good or bad yet.

      2. My guess is that technology-wise, Discovery is probably at the stage where Search was at pre-Google. Discovery could result in a closer 1-1 relationship between the consumer and product/service providers. If so, this would have an impact on the ad business as we know it.

      1. discovery should be guided by your interest graph, search and browsing history too. Discovery isn’t something new.

      2. The trick with the interest graph is that it keeps changing, and looking at search and browsing history is like looking in the rear view mirror. Where I have been is not necessarily where I want to go again. I think social/interest based discovery must be tuned either manually, algorithmically or via some other intelligent means, but we’re talking about the tail end of discovery. When discovery fails, we go SEARCHING.

      3. The biggest trick will be to have true search across the fracture landscape that is mobile and social.

      4. discovery might serve me in a certain way–interest me if can get my attention and maybe I’ll check it out.

        Search is about my intent at the moment, what’s specifically on my mind in real time. When search fails, I don’t turn to discovery.

        It’s not a point, just an observation.

      5. I agree with Charlie – You can live without online discovery but it is much more difficult without search. However, the discovery process often (at least for me) inspires search

  4. It is no surprise that Quora, Yelp and other social networks are starting to integrate with discovery engines such as Bing and Google. This process is still in its infancy but is probably is the way to go in the future. Google will obviously try to integrate Google+ social networks in the process and I am interested to see how work on that part. Very interesting topic John and thanks for posting!!

  5. Great piece: I hold the belief that most of search will significantly change with the verbal model (Siri, Google voice, etc…). When voice fully integrates into the app world, the noose tightens up around search; its a love loss.

  6. I get the feeling that apple can feel the pressure from google and that without sj they know they are on borrowed time and technology. It just feels like google is going to be the next big thing in computing with glasses, cars and the cloud while apple keeps iterating on iOS and some sort of tv.

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  8. It’s not looking good, Google is about the only “open” big player, people now think you can be more successful with the walled garden approach, there’re fewer people believe in the importance of the open web.

    1. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I think “open” wins in the long term, because “open” yields better results.

  9. this is why one of the new class of search engines–social search–might be compelling. Search across and into silos (we hope), and shared search results and terms. There’s little more powerful than knowing a user’s expressed intent in real time.

  10. I think the problem is – Facebook, Twitter etc.. do not know how to make their data searchable. IMO, their search algorithms are way below average. And they do not like Google touching their data as well.

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