Future Search: Hang on, what am I looking for again?

This is a guest post by Jasper Westaway of OneDrum. Throughout the summer we’re running guest posts we like – exclusive to TC Europe – written by people on the tech scene in Europe. If you’d like to contribute get in touch. More info here.

I can’t find my phone. What are my options for locating it?

1. Look for it
2. Ask others if they’ve seen it
3. Phone it

I would probably apply those strategies in that order as each fails. Of course, what I really want is for my phone to magically appear in my hand whenever I need it. That would be nice.

Search on the internet today is somewhere between a technology-driven stage 1 (Google, and minor variations like Wolfram Alpha and Bing) and a people-driven stage 2 (Digg, StumbleUpon, Twitter, Amazon recommendations). One might stretch the metaphor to argue that RSS, Google Alerts and the like are forms of stage 3; I’m not sure I would agree.

Technology markets typically display the following characteristics.

– Incumbents are displaced by products that are an order of magnitude better, not just 20% better.
– Product evolution is about adding value by getting closer to the user

The Internet has evolved. It has become more personal, less about static home pages and more about communication and collaboration (behaviour rather than data). This is what we would expect: The Internet is moving closer to us.

But what most people think of search has not changed significantly:

For the first 10 years, the web was primarily just a bunch of pages, and Google was an excellent tool for searching primary data.

Then we started doing mashups and social networks; these are essentially derived and dynamic forms of data and it’s not that we search differently, per se, but that we simply don’t think about search in these arenas in quite the same way. How many links away from me are you in a social network? Who is listening to the same music as me on Last.fm? What relevant experience do we have within our business? What houses are for sale on my street?

Inevitably, search will move closer to these problems, because these problems are closer to us.

Context is King

The end game for search is recognizing a context where an answer should be presented rather than sought. There are a few candidates in this field.

The semantic web garners a lot of attention (or at least it did once!). It attempts to wrap content in more meaning by enriching it with relevant keywords (I know this is a simplification, but really, who cares?). It is a rather an old fashioned view of the web because it solves an old fashioned problem — find relevant pages. It’s not that there is no room for innovation in this arena it’s jut that Google does this so well, you’re only ever go to be picking at their leftovers. Start-ups entering the search arena should be focussed on a different set of use cases.

There is a lot of talk about real time search but I think it is confused. Nothing is real time, particularly the typical examples that are given like Twitter (go talk to guys that build financial trading systems about “real-time”!).

Further, it is a rather unattractive property. I want data to arrive at the right time and real time is a narrow set of those cases (your house is on fire!). But we don’t understand what right time means so we’ll shove it at you whether you like it or not, so that when you actually need the data, it will have disappeared down the drain with the rest of the contents of the firehose.

Which returns me to my opening gambit. I want my phone to appear in my hand when I need it. How do we know when I need my phone? We start with behavioural triggers (he put his hand to his ear!) and continue to layer in those activities that provide meaning such as task-lists (I must order my groceries) or conversations (they are discussing the price of tomatoes).

Put that way it sounds a lot like the future of search belongs to collaboration: ‘What am I working on with you?’ is a the kind of behavioural question we could hang a new form of search off. What do we have to do to complete this project? That’s a context begging for unsolicited answers.

The future of search is not about better text fields and faster, smarter indexing; the future of search is about you and me.