Another August, another break-all-records, mother of all Search Engine Strategies (SES) conferences. I’m spending this week at the big one, in San Jose, CA.

What’s different this year? Like search, SES doesn’t fundamentally change. It just gets bigger and bigger — and more energized and invigorated. It’s not just attendance that’s growing, but search engines’ size, scale, and ambitions as well. A year ago, MSN wasn’t here with a search product. Ask Jeeves, fueled by Barry Diller’s billions, wasn’t making anywhere near the noise it did this time round. Danny Sullivan‘s keynote conversation was with Ask Jeeves’ CEO, Steve Berkowitz, a guy who wouldn’t have made the short list for that slot a year ago.

The huge infusion of money, growth, increased competition, and overall attention to search have focused much of the behind-the-scenes talk on search’s future. Below, some of the trends I’m picking up here.

Verticals Dance With Other Verticals

Local, meet Maps. Maps, meet Shopping. B2B, meet People. Vertical search’s different disciplines seem eager to take a few tentative steps out of their cocoons to meet their neighbors. Though the verticals were never intentionally siloed, there seems to be a lot more thought directed at how they can be interlaced. Yahoo Search’s Bradley Horowitz even mused aloud about a potential new vertical — temporal based-search. “Imagine following a band’s tour dates as you scroll across a map,” he mused.

Combining verticals makes sense, of course. There’s broad agreement maps search can leverage local search, for example. ZoomInfo’s people search was added to Business Week’s site this week, so readers can access deeper information about companies and officers they read about on the site. Social networking is creating folksonomies (define), meta-data and user-generated content that makes unsearchable things searchable. A computer still can’t reliably recognize a picture of a horse, says Horowitz, who worked on the problem at MIT. But a user knows a horse when he sees one and can easily tag the image “horse.”

If They Build It…?

There’s a great deal of talk about refining vertical search applications and making them more useful and prevalent. But actually getting people to use them — or even be aware they’re available — is another story entirely. The same holds true of marketers’ apparent slowness to adapt strategies and incorporate these niches’ advantages. Nowhere is this more evident than in the most niche search vertical there is (at least in the U.S.): mobile.

Yahoo alone has no fewer than 15 flavors of mobile products available, including search. Yet when I had dinner this week with one of Yahoo’s most senior search engineers, he confessed he’d never even seen Yahoo’s mobile features. He has now — I whipped out my Treo. If the engines aren’t even promoting these features internally, why would they expect end users to discover them?

The major portals all offer mobile search. They won’t divulge current usage figures, but Google’s Deep Nishar says users will swell to the billions in short order.

Yet as Mike Grehan recently pointed out, a mobile search more often leads to a site that’s useless to the mobile searcher. A pay-per-call number rather than a site URL could be the answer and likely will be soon. But first, someone has to provide that solution. When I mentioned this to a couple people at CallSource, a light bulb went on. Stay tuned.

Searching for Talent

Finding and retaining top talent is more a priority than ever for search engines and companies involved in all aspects of SEO (define) and SEM (define). I snapped a picture of one conference attendee who had affixed to his rolling suitcase a big “WE’RE HIRING!” placard, complete with an email address and phone number. Coming and going from various events and parties, I kept finding myself seated next to recruiters on the shuttle buses.

One major ad agency SVP of search is about to jump ship and join a startup. Word is he’s tired of seeing his peers who have equity shares in startups cash out or become millionaires. Another friend left a major agency and set up his own consultancy. Within 90 days, he’d sold the new company. If there’s anything coming out faster than new search bells and whistles, it’s gotta be new business cards for industry talent.

By Their Parties You Shall Know Them

Even if you didn’t read the news, attend the sessions at SES, or walk the bustling exposition floor, you’d know how hot the competition between major search engines is from the party scene here in San Jose. The Google Dance blowout faced serious competition for the first time from Yahoo, which rented Paramount’s Great America amusement park for SES attendees. Whoever thought you’d live your childhood fantasies of all the rollercoaster rides you wanted — or could stomach — without standing in line?

Not that Google’s bash wasn’t a gas, as usual, even if Google staff wore all the good T-shirts. I was particularly covetous of the Google Earth version: “4.5 Billion Years In Beta.”

Want one? You have to work there to get it. Search certainly has its perks.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

Related reading