Search Engine Executive Roundtable, Part 1

What’s happening in search today, and where is it headed? Danny Sullivan grilled top honchos from AOL Search, Ask Jeeves, MSN Search, and Yahoo for answers to these and other wide-ranging questions.

A special report from the San Jose Search Engine Strategies Conference, August 2004.

On the panel were Gerry Campbell, vice president and general manager of AOL Search and Navigation; Paul Gardi, senior VP of operations and strategic planning, Ask Jeeves; Christopher Payne, VP, MSN Search; and Jeff Weiner, senior VP of search and marketplace, Yahoo.

Google, on the eve of its IPO, declined to participate. Danny jokingly offered to represent Google’s perspective on behalf of the company.

Each executive led off with a brief overview of his own search service, seeking to differentiate it from the others.

“AOL is focused differently,” said AOL’s Campbell. “We don’t put efforts into core Web search, but partner instead,” referring to AOL’s partnership with Google to provide both paid and organic search results.

Campbell also said though Web search was an important part of the user experience, AOL is uniquely situated to deliver a very different experience to users, leveraging parent company Time Warner’s deep content assets.

“Our strategy is to deliver the best content experience,” he said. “I think AOL’s in a different spot.”

Yahoo’s Weiner said search provides not just a means to an end but an end in itself. Yahoo’s network has considerable depth, and the company is embedding search everywhere, trying to personalize the experience for each user.

In contrast to Campbell, Weiner stressed the importance to Yahoo of controlling its own technology. “In addition to our user base, we own our own proprietary search technology. This lets us control features and decide where to invest,” he said.

Ask Jeeves’s Gardi reiterated the importance of delivering a high-quality user experience. “It’s not about one-size-fits-all,” he said. Rather than emphasize personalization, he said search results quality is one of the most important factors for Ask Jeeves.

“Relevance ties all of this together. Relevance is our obsession. We want to make it simple, want to make it fast, want to make it relevant,” he stressed.

MSN’s Payne said the current state of search is very primitive compared to where it will be in 10 years. “I think the end user is going to win dramatically. There’s so much potential. It’s day one in search. It truly is going to change the way that people connect with information.”

Payne said he expects improvements in all types of search. “It’s harder to get to your email than it is to get to a Web file,” he observed.

MSN is pursuing what Payne called “implicit personalization.” He hinted the personalization technology used in its recently launched NewsBot service will migrate over into the mainstream Web search service the company plans to launch later this year.

Capturing the Searcher’s Mind

Danny wasted no time raising the issue of competition between the search services: “How do you bring the searcher into your place the first time, and how do you keep them coming back?”

Payne offered a surprising answer, particularly given Microsoft’s vast advertising and PR resources. “Word of mouth. If you build something better or unique, people will hear about it,” he said. He also said he thought there’s room for many players in the search space, noting Microsoft has found a direct correlation between the number of searches a person performs and the propensity to use multiple search engines.

AOL’s Campbell said effective search is about being part of people’s lives. “Search has moved from giving me a list of 10 results to help[ing] me navigate the vastness of the Web,” he said. The challenge is to take the average 2.6 words people type into a search box and give the user the best possible experience. He believes over time, the user experience at all of major search engines will diverge, as each hones in on what it does best.

Yahoo’s Weiner also emphasized the importance of understanding user intent. “Going forward, the more we understand the users, the more we’re going to give them a reason to stay,” he said.

Weiner wants search to be easier and ubiquitous. One of Yahoo’s initiatives is to “get the search box in front of the user at the moment they’re inspired to do a search.”

Going Vertical

Danny turned the focus away from general Web search. “What are the next important verticals, and how do you decide which to pursue?” he asked.

In addition to offering vertical content areas through browsing, AOL uses what Campbell calls a “search funnel” to determine user intent and to vary the type of results accordingly. If a query suggests a searcher is shopping, results are more commercially oriented. “If we’ve got products, we’re going to put them into the results,” he said. AOL is proceeding slowly with these efforts. “If we give you something that doesn’t fit it, you may not get the ah-ha moment.”

Weiner said Yahoo considers three factors to determine whether to pursue a particular strategy. First, is there consumer demand? Second, can Yahoo differentiate its offering from what currently exists to create more quality? Finally, Yahoo wants a vertical to create value, either directly through monetization or indirectly by getting people involved with the experience and wanting more.

Yahoo plans to continue its push in verticals. Weiner highlighted travel and music as high-demand categories. He added his company hasn’t fully leveraged the search model in other “classic categories,” such as careers and personals.

Ask Jeeves’ Gardi said local search was a top priority, noting 10 percent of all searches have explicitly local intent. He said the definition of local is fuzzy. It could mean nearby business or services, or information about people, weather, or maps. As far as local search services go, “These things have already existed, but crawling the Web doesn’t satisfy our need to get the information we’re looking for.”

To solve this problem, Ask Jeeves’ is adding structured data to the content it’s found on the Web. This will include things such as reviews, opinions, and what Gardi calls “eight years of accumulated experience about local search.”

“Our next vertical at Microsoft is going to be Web search,” quipped Payne, cracking up the audience, adding, “I also think of desktop search as a critical vertical.”

Payne said MSN is taking an approach similar to Ask Jeeves’, integrating structured information into Web search. “It will be our job to integrate that information into Web search and then direct people to the good verticals.”

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