Supernova Panel: Search Far from Mature

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2006-06-23

Supernova Panel: Search Far from Mature

SAN FRANCISCO—In spite of the phenomenal growth in usage of Web search, the technology is still at a very early stage and has a long and interesting future ahead of it, said members of a panel discussion on the future of search at the Supernova conference here.

But, in the June 22 discussion titled "From Search to Eternity," the panelists seemed to agree on little else.

Users have to look beyond just typing keywords in a box, according to David Sifry, founder and CEO of Technorati, a provider of real-time search.

"They have to allow discovery, with approval, of course, where we can discover what you like, want and need, and where we can also maybe present this in a different way, such as a notification or a widget on your own blog," he said.

The biggest challenge is how the industry and the providers take search "beyond the box and provide you with a delight experience. That is the future and where we are trying to go," Sifry said.

Jim Lanzone, CEO of, the fifth-ranked search engine for general search, said the industry is doing a poor job understanding user intent and needs to improve this across hundreds of categories.

"There also needs to be greater awareness that search is changing, and we need to change peoples perceptions about what search is all about," Lanzone said. "We also need to make things more seamless for the user, like narrowing the gap between finding the information for them, tracking it and acting on it."

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Leila Boujnane, co-founder and CEO of Idee, which does enterprise image searching based on all the attributes of an image, as well as image tracking, believes the future of search hinges on the introduction and development of new indexing technologies that allow for better image and video searching.

The key moving forward, according to Kapenda Thomas, founder of social search engine Jookster, is awareness of the relationship between people and indexing technologies. "There also needs to be a greater innovation in the way information is found," he said.

Technoratis Sifry said speed remains a key element of search, noting that his service takes less than 5 minutes to index a blog entry after it has been posted.

The Web is all about people and what happens with them, he said, so search is now a core technology to understanding the Web in a new way: not from where the Web has come from, not just as documents and pages, but rather as an enormous river, an event stream.

"We are all now living on the Web. People are producers now, not just consumers," Sifry said. "We now have to look at how these documents are created, and the answer is that they are created by people at a certain point in time. So, you now have two additional pieces of metadata: when something happened and who did it."

The same technologies are still being used but are being applied in new and different ways, he said, adding that this does not require a significant change in technology but in the point of view of those essentially living on the Web.

General search remains the doorway to the Web, according to Ask.coms Lanzone. Its focus and innovation is squarely on search and is growing across different categories.

"People want search to be an on-demand medium, and the trick is presenting results in the way people want: relevance, speed and ease of use," he said. "A lot of our focus is on giving people the right product at the right time."

But people are not thinking about alternative ways of doing search and achieving the goals they want, he said, noting that people must realize that search is still evolving and there are more trustworthy services coming, particularly in developing areas such as image search.

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Idees Boujnane, who acknowledged that "these are the very, very early days of image search," said technologies have to be developed that allow search for relevance and similarity, not just for keywords, which are very poor image descriptors.

"Keywords are the starting point for this rather than the endpoint. Better indexing and better, combined algorithms are key to improving this," she said.

Jooksters Thomas said the key innovation offered by his companys service is "degrees of separation of search—how many degrees of separation a person is away from you."

The key to social networking is context, and the goal is to leverage the relationships between individuals and cluster these seamlessly to give the results they want, he said.

"I think progressively that the Internet is now about community, and 8.2 percent of all Google searches today come from social networks," he said.

Moving forward, search engines will have to embrace the aspects of social networks and communities, where the reliance is not just on keywords but also on relationships, Thomas said.

Next Page: Mobile search.

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With regard to mobile search, Ask.coms Lanzone said Americans want to get the Internet on their devices "the way they get it on the computer. Here [in the United States] it is about rendering and speed," he said.

While his company is aggressively looking at this space, U.S. customers see SMS (Short Message Service) as complex and slow and want a more robust experience, he said.

Technoratis Sifry said people want devices to be more aware of factors such as location, so if they were in San Francisco searching for, say, a store, they would not have to specify their location.

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There is also a lot of opportunity around notification-based services in the mobile search space, he said.

With regard to privacy and the possibility of more information available on the Web moving behind a firewall, Sifry said there will always be "people out there who want to be found. I am not concerned about the entire Internet going behind a firewall," he said.

"But it puts an enormous amount of responsibility on us as service providers as to what we turn on by default. We also only index publicly available information and will not make information available that the owner does not want to be public," he said.

Jooksters Thomas said his company empowers users by giving them options as to what information they want public and what they want to remain private.

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