Searching for the Future

Think you’re pretty good at sussing out the future? Try matching wits with Yahoo Research’s fantasy prediction game that lets you bet for — or against — emerging technologies and trends.

The Tech Buzz Game is an intriguing offering that lets you and others predict the technologies people will search the Web for in the future. How? By buying or selling fantasy stocks that reflect a mix of companies, products, and technologies in innovative areas.

The game is a collaboration between Yahoo Research and tech publisher O’Reilly. The markets and stocks reflect O’Reilly’s picks of “important, emerging, intriguing, and disruptive forces in the technology world.”

It’s free to play. When you register you’re given $10,000 fantasy dollars to play with. You then decide which markets you want to invest in.

Each market focuses on a specific area of technology, such as operating systems, wireless Internet, and so on. Many of the markets focus on Web-based technologies: ad services, desktop search, virtual earth, social bookmarks, and others.

Within each market are stocks that represent companies working on particular products or services within the market.

The game is fun if you’re interested in the whole idea of buying and selling based on your own bets on future trends. What makes it even more interesting is each stock has a buzz score, representing its percentage of search buzz compared to other stocks in the same market.

What’s search buzz? Essentially, it’s a number of words or phrases associated with a particular stock. Buzzwords are chosen by starting with an initial seed set of related search phrases. This initial set is expanded by using Yahoo Search Web Services to discover related searches.

You can see the buzz words for a stock by clicking the “view buzz words” link on the stock’s information page. A bonus on this page: Yahoo News headlines related to each stock.

At certain intervals, all shares in all stocks cash out according to buzz scores. This means prices in the game are grounded in something real: search frequency on Yahoo Ultimately, you’re not only making bets based on your own knowledge and insight, you’re also trying to predict search trends.

Apart from being an amusing and interesting pastime for participants, the project has other, more serious goals. From the game’s FAQ page, these goals include:

  • To see if search buzz (including spikes and trends) can indeed be predicted by the collective wisdom of crowds in a market
  • To provide an index of “what’s next” for technology enthusiasts
  • To separate the wheat from the chaff among the various technologies O’Reilly is constantly watching and tracking; to measure which forces in the technology industry are truly disruptive and which are mere flashes in the pan
  • To discover how Yahoo Research’s dynamic pari-mutuel market mechanism behaves in the “wild”
  • To investigate opportunities around predicting trends in search engine behavior, and how they relate to events in the real world

Even if you don’t play, checking in from time to time to see which markets and stocks are moving can offer valuable insights if you spend any time following trends and technologies.

How do you play?

Say you want to invest in the maps and directions market. The four stocks in that market represent MapQuest, Google Maps, MSN Maps, and Yahoo Maps. Currently, MapQuest is the most expensive stock, and Yahoo Maps is cheapest.

Select the stock you want to purchase and indicate the dollar amount you want to invest. The system calculates the number of shares you’re eligible to buy. There’s no transaction fee to buy, but there is a penny per share transaction fee for selling stocks.

You’re also not allowed to sell stocks short, so the only significant way to make money is to buy undervalued stocks and sell once they’ve appreciated.

There are other nuances to the game I won’t bother to elaborate here. If you’re interested in learning more details about how the pari-mutuel market mechanism establishes prices for the stocks, see this citation on Yahoo Research.

Meet Chris at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 27-March 2.

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