Thoughts on the State of Search

Sarah Milstein, co-author and editor of Google: The Missing Manual, sent some thought-provoking comments to the O’Reilly editors’ list last week. I thought they were very much worth sharing with a wider audience.

A couple of things I’ve noticed since writing/editing the second edition of the Google Missing Manual earlier this year. Nothing ground-breaking here; more that in aggregate, the observations may spark some interesting conversations.

  • As the Web gets bigger, search results contain more irrelevant stuff. In many cases, it’s getting harder to find what you want. Appreciably harder.
  • Assuming search winds up lasting 100+ years, it’s still in its infancy. Still, it surprises me that the presentation of Google’s main search results pages barely changed in the two years from one edition of the book to the next. The main difference is that now, onebox results with specialized information appear more frequently (though randomly) at the top of results listing. At this point, I’m ready for a better results interface.
  • Other search companies are doing some cool stuff with their main results. For many searches, Microsoft Live presents a super-useful list of related searches; also, somebody hit them with the clean-interface stick. does a nice job with simple natural-language questions. Clusty has been offering very handy clustered search results since at least 2004. Daylife (still in alpha) does what is essentially clustering with a thoughtful interface.
  • Vertical search is a hot trendlet; for the most part, it’s about clustering and improving the results interface. (Those aren’t trivial things; they’re really important aspects of helping you find stuff.)
  • As search results get more unwieldy, recommendation engines like Amazon’s or iTunes’ could become more important tools. (Bonus: they’re an iteration of the architecture of participation, so we can claim some kind of credit. ;) Presumably, implicit relevance (based on search-result clickstreams) is going to be a big part of this if it’s not already.
  • I wonder when/if search is going to be real-time (i.e. live Web) rather than index-based. And I wonder if the main barrier to it now is hardware or software (to the degree you can separate them). At Web2, I met a woman from Intel R&D who’s working on a continuous refresh data system that would allow real-time searching but for which you need multi-core processors that aren’t yet ready for primetime. Still, an interesting glimpse of the possible future.

    [Sidebar: I brought up the idea of real-time Web search with Tony Stubblebine, and he thought it was hilarious. Totally unrealistic viz computing capacity. I thought it was laughable that he thought we wouldn’t eventually have the bandwidth and cycles to do it. Tune in in 10 years for an update.]

  • When do the implicit conclusions of hardcore data-mining and analysis become part of search results? For example, Marc Smith’s newsgroup analysis can point to potential experts on a topic. If I want to find an SEO guru, when will search results from a major engine contain implicitly derived info from Marc’s project?

A couple of thoughts on Google as a company:

  • During the two-year period from one edition of Google TMM to the next, Google began adding features and services at such an increasingly quick clip that while the second edition was at the printer, we missed out on eight new tools. That was in a 10-day period. (Some of those new tools are search-related; many are not.)
  • The other big change from the Google customer POV is that now, a lot of Google services require an account. It’s not yet clear, though, how/whether having an account will lead to improved search results.
  • Moreover, it’s no longer clear that Google is a search company. They’re certainly an ad-brokering network (I’m sure everyone saw the announcement last week that they’re reaching into newspaper ads now, with plans for basically all major media). And they’re a provider of (mostly) Web-based productivity tools of all kinds. But a lot of those activities seem to have little to do with their mission of “organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.” They do seem to have organized the world’s top search experts. But as a customer, I’m not sure I’m feeling the benefit of that in my everyday searching.

A final note: I use a slew of Google tools every day, my life is richer for them, and I’m not looking to bash the company. But I do wonder where the next search innovations are going to come from, and I’m surprised to find that Google isn’t the obvious answer to that question anymore.