Industry Players Predict Search’s Future

Personalization, ubiquity, a variety of media in search results and genetically engineered search pets were some of the predictions for the future of search put forth by experts at the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York Wednesday.

Panelists from Google, AOL, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves swapped ideas, talked up their companies and answered questions from an audience of about 500 in a roundtable discussion moderated by Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.

One thing they all agreed on: relevance is key, both in the present and the future. “The needs of the advertiser and the user are basically the same. They both want relevance,” said Paul Gardi, SVP of operations and strategic planning for Ask Jeeves.

Panelists also discussed increasing personalization. “If one of our subscribers searches on ‘pizza,’ we can return a list of stores in their ZIP code,” said Tim Cadogan, VP of Yahoo search. “Results on ‘Eagles’ will be different for a user who visits sports sites and one who goes to classic rock sites.”

Carrying personalization to the nth degree, Craig Silverstein of Google said, “The future of search will involve genetically engineered search pets that will understand human emotions — not just facts, but how people work.”

For example, Silverstein said, “Your significant other looks sad. You say, ‘What’s wrong, honey?’ Honey says, ‘Nothing.’ Now you know two things. First: there is an answer, and second: ‘Nothing’ isn’t it. Search pets would hopefully know you and your family and help with the answer.”

Privacy is a key issue with personalization, panelists said.

“We’ve been personalizing for a long time. It is scary how much information we could collect, and it’s important that we respect peoples’ privacy,” said Gardi.

“If we use any sort of personalization, it’s within the privacy policy and we make sure this is evident,” said Campbell.

Ubiquity was another common prediction. “Search will extend into other activities,” said Cadogan. “It will be integrated into instant messaging, for example.”

Panelists said many search results currently incorporate more than just text, and the trend will continue.

“If I search for Coldplay, I might find images in the index, or a news story, or an ad saying, ‘Buy the iTune’,” Campbell said. “I believe this is in the near future.” He pointed out that AOL acquired Singingfish, a search engine for audio, video, and MP3, last year, but did not elaborate as to what the giant ISP might have in mind for the property.

“We want to integrate more media types and formats in search results — pictures in results when a teenager looks for a pop star, for example,” said Cadogan.

Questions from the audience included a query as to whether all search someday would be paid.

“Let me take that, since it’s probably directed at me,” said Cadogan of Yahoo, which Tuesday debuted a new paid inclusion program. “We have an iron wall” with regard to paid content, Cadogan said, with the rankings remaining unaffected.

Panelists seemed in accord with a suggestion made in panel moderator Danny Sullivan’s keynote speech Tuesday that search engine marketers would someday bid not on keywords, but on concepts and audiences.

Another audience member asked, “Will we end up with only one search engine, and will it be Microsoft?”

Silverstein said, “I hope it won’t end up with only one. There’s room for lots of engines.”

According to Gardi, “If you look at usage patterns on the Web, users go from search site to search site. There’s different information in different engines. It’s going to be hard for any one engine to take the space.”

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