Microsoft Bing Engineer Echoes Google on the Future of Search

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-09-23

Microsoft Bing Engineer Echoes Google on the Future of Search

News Analysis: Many of us know what Google thinks of search. In addition to the regular search innovations the company throws against the wall-see last week's launch of Google Fast Flip and today's Sidewiki, the company's leaders blast out state of the union addresses on the topic.

"The Future of Search" published by Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google, in September 2008, is fitting for a company that leads the free world in search engine market share.

What you haven't seen are such state of search posts from Google's rivals Yahoo and Microsoft. Until now. Jan Pedersen, chief scientist for core search at Microsoft, shared his thoughts on the current search market and its future direction in this post on the Huffington Post Sept. 22.

When we read it, we quickly realize that Google is no longer the smartest kid in the class. Sure, Google may have the most search marbles, but Pedersen's piece echoes a lot of what Mayer wrote in her post from September 2008. What this means is Microsoft gets search, something that we couldn't say with a straight face before Bing launched in June. Still, at 9 percent, Bing has a long way to go to catch Google's 65 percent search market share.

In his post, Pedersen argued that search is limited because it understands little of what we say and for that reason it isn't as good at helping users collect, organize and act on information. Eventually, search will be the easiest way to answer a question or to complete a task. Mayer, meanwhile, noted: "There are lots of ways that search will need to evolve in order to easily meet user needs."  

Pedersen said search will be buoyed by the growth of the Internet, with devices, users, services and information growing along with computing power and "algorithmic ingenuity." We also have the glut of user-generated content and social outlets such as Wikipedia, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook to thank for spurring search development. He pointed to startups offering real-time search services. 

But Bing, like Google and Yahoo, uses another form of user-generated data to boost search: the feedback users provide with their searches. Bing uses this data in aggregate to enhance search results. Google search services gauge their users search behavior, too. Pedersen added:

"By mining the vast amounts of behavioral data that accumulate through usage and through explicit and implicit contribution to the Web, search engines will become increasingly adept at anticipating user intentions. Ultimately this will extend to the common actions and services associated with the content someone is looking for. For example, it will be possible in the near future to reserve a table at a restaurant or order a taxi from the 'search results' page for these queries."

What Pedersen described as user-generated data Mayer called personalization when she wrote in her post:

"Search engines of the future will be better in part because they will understand more about you, the individual user. Of course, 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. But even with the most rudimentary user information, search engines can and will provide drastically better search results."

Google, Microsoft See Eye to Eye on Search

It's clear Mayer and Pedersen think similarly about search.

Pedersen notes that, at present, when you ask a search engine for "recent, positive reviews of the Amazon Kindle," it will ignore the nuances of the request because it understands relatively little of what we say. He adds:

"Increasingly, however, search engines will begin to understand more of the intention behind a user's query through the application of better Web crawling and mining and natural-language-understanding algorithms. For example, search engines have historically successfully applied complex statistical analyses to the web in several languages to produce translators that handily beat traditional rule-based approaches. We can expect these efforts to increase in sophistication, ultimately leading to engines that understand both the world and the structure of our language."

That's a nice shout-out for the semantic Web, something that Google has been playing around with under the covers. I expect Bing is also testing semantic search.

In another statement that recalls Google's oft-relayed outlook on search, Pedersen notes:

"In many ways, search technology is still in its infancy but much like a child, its potential is limitless. We see Bing as the first step in this long process of transforming search from something which often points you somewhere else to try and find your answer. We see search as something that both understands you and the world in which it exists to provide you with insight and knowledge-rather than more questions."

Mayer, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin make the point about search being in its infancy often. Mayer noted in her post:

"Search is a science that will develop and advance over hundreds of years. Think of it like biology and physics in the 1500s or 1600s: It's a new science where we make big and exciting breakthroughs all the time. However, it could be a hundred years or more before we have microscopes and an understanding of the proverbial molecules and atoms of search. Just like biology and physics several hundred years ago, the biggest advances are yet to come."

The similarities between the way Google and Microsoft view search hold together to the end. Well, almost. There is one area where Microsoft's and Google's views on search seem to diverge: scale.

Pedersen argues that search will transform because it benefits from scale, that is, it becomes better and more useful as the amount of data increases. That echoes what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in selling the Microsoft-Yahoo search deal. Google Chief Economist Hal Varian disputed this notion.

I put that debate to you, readers: Does scale matter?

And if you don't care about that topic, how about this: Will Microsoft be able to achieve staying power by following its current course of action, powering Yahoo and innovating with real-time search, shared search and visual search?


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