Google's Search Crystal Ball via Marissa Mayer

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-09-11

Google's Search Crystal Ball via Marissa Mayer

Last Sunday, Sept. 7, the blogosphere scoured Google for a post trumpeting the company's 10th birthday. Sadly, we were disappointed, or relieved for those who are Googled out by the Chrome bomb Google dropped on Microsoft.

There was no such post. Methinks Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience, was preparing for TechCrunch50 Sept. 8, where she announced a new Google news archive program and served as a panel judge for some startups.

Now she's back to doing what she loves to do in this Sept. 10 blog post: talking search. I have to write about it, simply because it dovetails with my own coverage from last Friday, where I claimed Google's next battle will be in the mobile sector versus Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo.

Instead of rehashing the past, Mayer discusses what she thinks search will be like in the next 10 years. She broke the future of search down into six characteristics: modes, media, personalization, location, social and language. I'm going to discuss what I think about each one.

By modes, Mayer means that search needs to be more accessible through devices beyond the classic PC or laptop. Mobile modality, including on phones, in cars and, who knows, maybe entertainment systems that double as TVs and computers. We're already seeing this with the uptake of Google Search on the iPhone and other gadgets.  

She suggests a wearable device that does searches in the background based on the words it picks up from conversations, and then flashes relevant facts? Interesting. That's futuristic all right. Voice search exists, but it's such a niche area right now. I wonder who, what or when Google will buy in voice search to crack into this green field.

In the next 10 years, we will see radical advances in modes of search: mobile devices offering us easier search, Internet capabilities deployed in more devices, and different ways of entering and expressing your queries by voice, natural language, picture or song, just to name a few. It's clear that while keyword-based searching is incredibly powerful, it's also incredibly limiting. These new modes will be one of the most sweeping changes in search.

These modes could also be quite lucrative once Google, Yahoo or Microsoft figures out how to sell ads against them.

Next, Mayer cites media, pointing to Google's Universal search as an important first step that included images, videos, news, books and maps/local information in Google's search results. She wonders what the results page would be like if it began to seem more like an answer rather than 10 independent guesses.

She suggests laying out results in columns to use more of the width available on newer, wider screens. I'm not so sure about that, let alone what it would look like. Mayer would do well to provide a visual, but I appreciate the ambitious thinking.

Third on her list is personalization, and it is here where Google must be careful considering the Department of Justice appears to be poised to challenge Google's deal with Yahoo.  

Google Has Designs on Personalization, Social Search

Mayer says, "Search engines of the future will be better in part because they will understand more about you, the individual user." She immediately adds, "You will be in control of your personal information, and whatever personal information the search engine uses will be with your permission and will be transparent to you."

Fine words in theory, but these promises from Google are increasingly falling on deaf ears from privacy advocates and even politicians.  

Mayer adds that search engines of the future will know where you are located, perhaps what you know already or what you learned earlier today, or maybe they will "fully understand your preferences because you have chosen to share that information with us."

Hmmm. Unlikely, especially if it is opt-in. Google would need to prove the value add for people to give up the keys to their houses. Regardless, Mayer said Google is investing in research and experimentation on personalized search. Good luck.

She alluded to it in describing personalization, but she reiterated location will be a big factor in search engines, and I couldn't agree more. User location and context will be crucial in honing searches for better targeting and relevancy.

There is also social context, or who we are friends with and how we relate to them. Eventually, search will disambiguate, eliminating vagueness to help people find each other from contextual search. "Algorithmic analysis of the user's social graph to further refine a query or disambiguate it could prove very useful in the future," she wrote.

Finally, Google is investing in machine translation technology to bring the same search results to someone speaking English, Farsi or Dutch. This could be a more appropriate way of describing Universal Search.

Mayer closes by noting that solutions to meet the challenges of mobility, modes, media, personalization, location, socialization and language will take decades. Perhaps, but these groups are already percolating.

Mobile search is far along and ready to be monetized more fully with ads. Social search engines such as Wikia, Delver and Mahalo abound. Google already has a Web translation tool. Search, which is already leveraging location information, will become more personalized once Google can find a way to do behavioral targeting without infringing on users' privacy.

Search is in fine shape. It just needs room to grow under the auspices of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the long tail of smaller engines providing differentiated services.

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