Tue, Aug 24, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The future of Internet search is nigh, and with it better results

By Esther Dyson

Imagine that Googling an address gave you a list of the closest buildings, ranked by distance. Not exactly what you were looking for, most likely, but that is pretty close to what we still accept for most Internet searches. You don’t get what you actually want to finish your task; you get a list of pages that might lead you to it.

That is beginning to change. Even as the online world has turned its attention from searching to social networking, search is getting interesting again.

Consider the development of online search in the broadest terms. First came Yahoo, with its carefully cultivated (by human editors) catalogue of interesting Web pages. Then along came Google, with cofounder Larry Page’s innovative ranking of Web pages not just by their content, but also by the quantity and quality of other pages that link to them.

Social networking brings a new insight. People are likely to buy what their friends recommend, which is why marketers should spend time on social networks and join the conversation, rather than interrupt it with traditional advertising.

But what happens when, influenced by their friends, people actually go to buy something or take some action? That long list of blue links to pages that may or may not contain what they want looks pretty old.

Now, however, something is happening to fix this, and it’s not just a prettier background. It’s structure — the same sort of context the old Yahoo catalogue supplied, but this time automatically generated and deeper — and across more than just a few categories such as sports and travel.

For example, what people want — and are now getting — in product search is not a list of pages, but a set of products displayed in some meaningful fashion. They want a map of the product space, not a list. The challenge of course, is that each kind of product has a different structure and a different set of attributes.

Consider wines: You can sort them by price, year, or region of origin, by red, white, or rose, or by sparkling or still. For clothes, you want sizes and colors — and perhaps some filters depending on your personal characteristics — and of course a “buy now” button.

Some areas, such as travel, are even more complex. To “map” travel properly, the software needs to understand such things as time zones, flight duration, layovers and the like, along with concepts such as coach or first class, deluxe and standard rooms, double vs single, and so on. That is why there is a whole separate vertical market for travel, but one that first Bing, and now Google (with the acquisition of ITA Software), may be claiming.

For a long time Google didn’t need to do much to remain the leader in Internet search, focusing primarily on the “access” part of its self-proclaimed mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But runner-up Microsoft went out and bought Medstory in 2007 and then Powerset in 2008. (I was an investor in both of them, so I have been watching these developments with interest, but I have no inside information on either company since the acquisitions.)

Medstory has a deep understanding of healthcare, including the relationships between diseases and treatments, drugs and symptoms, and side effects. Powerset, a tool for creating and defining such relationships in any sphere of interest, is broader but less deep.

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