Querying The Next Generation
Computer, where are we going?
"The 'Star Trek' paradigm is what everyone has in their heads," says Cam Balzer, director of search strategies at Performics, the performance-based marketing unit of DoubleClick. "Search will be a thing in itself, an open channel to query an answer, whether from a Web page or any device."
In his book The Search, Internet entrepreneur John Battelle tracks an expectant couple querying their digital video recorder to search for and record pregnancy-related TV shows. The Web-connected backend merges with an online search history and their psychographic profiles, and delivers not only a customized schedule of relevant videos, but also a package of targeted Pampers ads and an e-commerce button for upscale strollers. "Search is the de facto interface for computing in the Information Age," says Battelle. "We need tools that go beyond the computing interface we've used since the dawn of Windows and Mac. That new interface is search."
At Carat Fusion, Jeremy Cornfeldt, vice president of search, and his team are already crafting presentations for what he calls "Search 2.0," in which the desktop, TV, and mobile screens merge, backend data converges over the Web, and all media deliver waste-free "composition" -- messaging only to those actively looking for a product. "The outlines are definitely visible," says Cornfeldt.
Take it a step further. As digital photography already shows, if people can record their lives they will, so as video and storage become less expensive and more portable, BlinkX CEO Suranga Chandratillake anticipates that everything we see, hear, write, and read could fit on a small disk for indexing. "From that perspective, search is a narrow term for what this will become."
Search is in the "Star Trek" stage where such visions represent more than fanciful dreams. "This is a generational jump," says Danny Sullivan, founder, SearchEngineWatch. "It is not Web search. Smart marketers are looking at the other possible ways people are searching."
To be sure, myriad deals are transforming search. Google will appear on Motorola handsets and has leapt into radio and print advertising, Yahoo has partnered with TiVo and Showtime and acquired Flickr and Del.icio.us, and Microsoft developed AdCenter, which is capable of feeding ads to an Xbox video game console. But the direct path to the future of search isn't clear even to Google.
Computer! Can we get there from here?
Version 1.5: The Big To-Do List
Um...not so fast. Work is needed to evolve search technology, and that likely means land grabs by the key players. New ad inventory and other media will also be key drivers, Battelle says. Google and Yahoo need to gather local and classified listings and expand their engines and inventory to other media. They need to demonstrate the relevance of their engines across all media platforms and nail down the ad inventory that will play on mobile, radio, and digital set-top boxes. There is a particularly steep curve ahead for video search.
Search 2.0 will involve "more of an evolution of how to determine relevance," says Gary Stein, director of client services, BuzzMetrics. With an eye toward mobile searches and video queries, the search engines will push hard this year to get their algorithms beyond back links and text tags. "Filtering will be huge," says Rob Griffin, U.S. director of search for MPG's Media Contacts.
The longstanding hope of personalized search is starting to bear fruit. For example, Google's News page now recommends stories based on a searcher's click history. Keywords and copy scans only go so far, says Danielle Leitch, executive vice president, client strategy at MoreVisibility, a search engine marketing firm. "The writing is on the wall. Behavioral targeting and demographic profiling will be the next layer in search," she says, pointing to MSN's plan to include both options in AdCenter.
Yahoo hopes to refine the search model by leveraging social networking, the collaborative search and user-tagging that recent acquisitions of Flickr and Del.icio.us add to its fold. Ultimately, it may take a village, or several, to tweak and target results so they account for subjective qualities like trustworthiness and personal taste. As search becomes the interface for a wider range of content, especially video, merging it with a recommendation engine may be as important as tagging video.
BuzzMetrics' Stein weaves a possible scenario in which cable TV radically fragments into on-demand programming, and Web models for content discovery go to a set-top box. "You can imagine a blog approach to programming: one guy who chooses 20 hours of shows and has an AdSense for video," Stein observes.
As the search engines embrace more and varied content that runs on personal devices, the key battlegrounds are likely to be in the form of presentation and portability. "The big challenge is how to surface the right tools at the right time for us to absorb them," says David Pell, CEO, Rollyo.
The search engines need to learn not only where consumers are and what they like, but also which of the many searchable media types they want and the formats they'll need. "They will need to make better guesses about what you want -- images, maps, or something from your iPod," says BlinkX's Chandratillake. In this regard, Amazon's inscrutable A9 engine becomes more intriguing, because it answers a search with diverse media types organized in a multipane display.
In fact, when you compare future search fantasies to the current state of the art, the incomplete pieces in Search 2.0 are portability, location awareness, and presentation.
Google is placing its brand on Motorola's wireless handsets, and Microsoft is promoting Windows Mobile with wireless companies. The forthcoming Yahoo Go Mobile miniaturizes portal functionality and promises to control your TiVo box. No one is close yet to making a wireless handset search box work well, but as content moves to wireless devices "the mobile aspect is going to be very, very significant," MPG's Griffin argues, because it localizes and personalizes information.
"It is certainly possible that mobile phones will be the super high-powered remote control," says Noah Elkin, director of industry relations at iCrossing. "Because it is all IP-driven [Internet Protocol], you will be able to access home and mobile voice mail, and search your content on any of these networks."
A Test of Character
If the deals and deployments all seem stuck somewhere between a clear mission and a see-if-it-sticks mode, that's because it is "a bit of both," says Battelle of the big engines, Google especially. "I don't sense that they have a 'Grand Unifying Theory.' "
What Google, MSN, and Yahoo do have now, however, are discrete directions, corporate characters, and cultures from which to engage the search challenge. Google seems focused on distribution, and on getting its search engine to power every conceivable media platform. Google is bringing its search engine technology to radio through the recent acquisition of dMarc Broadcasting, to WiFi hot spots, print ads, and analytics. "They seem to be thinking that their performance platform can be the foundation for almost any kind of advertising," says Performics' Balzer. "They envision a Google button everywhere," says iCrossing's Elkin.
While Google is the partner every media and technology company thinks it wants, it's only proven itself in one revenue stream, online search ads. As the search box moves off the browser, rival Yahoo envisions ubiquitous content and community, which Google lacks, and contacts in the form of longstanding relationships with media companies, advertisers, cable and Internet service providers, and telecom companies.
With only a slice of the market share for search, Microsoft's MSN rallied to build msn's AdCenter, which includes the key behavioral and demographic layers needed for next-generation search. "It is explicitly trying to create a portable platform that can serve all of MSN's advertising," Balzer notes, from text to banners to Xbox to Web applications like Office Live. Microsoft knows how to build and implement software across converging screens. Its operating systems already run on PCs, Internet TV platforms, game consoles, wireless phones, digital organizers, and a few mobile media players. "They'll go back to the technology and OS [operating system] and try to out-geek Google," predicts David Berkowitz, director of strategic planning, 360i.
Follow the Search Box
Whatever the outcome of the horse race among Goo-Hoo-Soft, the discipline of search engine marketing is poised to grow its influence. mpg's Media Contacts built its own search-focused team rather than outsource it because clients now ask how much they need to spend on search before allocating the rest of their media budget.
"Search is very much becoming central to it all," says Griffin, whose clients include Vonage and Fidelity Investments. No marketer wants to be in the situation that Coke found itself in after neglecting to buy relevant keywords upon uncorking the multimillion dollar C2 brand launch. Imagine the price of such a faux pas on John Battelle's DVR of the future, where the search function sits adjacent to the ad.
Marketing disciplines will converge just as surely as media. Griffin recalls a meeting with Google where he had to call in print planners to address its new business selling magazine ad space. "I couldn't leave the room, because print doesn't understand the [Google] system," Griffin says.
Search is the marketing model poised to replicate itself everywhere, to eliminate ad waste, and match ads to desires on every medium it touches. "What we need to do as an agency is practice what we preach and live the integration story," says Carat's Cornfeldt. "This is the bridge we need to make between search and other types of marketing."
On to the Next Dimension
But Cornfeldt's bridge will need to span new dimensions in offline and online media. The search box will appear everywhere and be capable of searching everything. Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media, already has his vast text library digitized, parsed, and tagged with XML code that is ready for delivery to any device imaginable. In his view, the device itself will become the query box. Aim a wireless phone cam at a bar code and product reviews, price comparisons, and coupons will appear. "Increasingly, we will be in a world upping the informational content of objects," he says. That world is partially here.
Visual search company Mobot indexes and recognizes mobile snapshots of ElleGirl's print ads, which tweens snap on their camera phones and e-mail in to enter contests. And the pieces are already in place for home searches. Combine user profiling (we know who and where you are) with RFID tags, add global positioning system software (we know where everything is), throw in an online mapping function and...
Computer! Where the hell are my car keys?
IS LOCAL SEARCH READY FOR ITS CLOSEUP?
Local search has been poised to explode since 2002. While about 20 percent of consumer searches this year will involve queries for local goods and services, only about $500 million of the $7 billion spent on text ads last year was local, reports The Kelsey Group.
Most analysts agree that Yahoo and Google have over-promised and under-delivered on local search. But last year, both companies attempted to replace hype with whizbang map interfaces, new presentation devices, and more reliable listings. The major engines succeeded in acquainting users with the gestalt of vertical search. The "pizza 07070"-style query now accounts for billions of monthly searches. "We've made great strides in how it is being positioned and supported," says Danielle Leitch of MoreVisibility.
Performics' Balzer says local search is starting to make sense for national marketers. Her analysis shows that some multichannel ad campaigns produce early morning queries on brands in local stores. "There is clearly an application here for retail and multichannel [marketing]," she says.
"There is a huge opportunity for the mom-and-pops and regional players that have to compete with the big franchises," says Leitch, explaining that small shops can level the playing field in search results, where every ad looks as good as another. She is already seeing local search buys succeed for attorneys, realtors, and medical practices. But since most small- and medium-sized businesses sell services, what they really want are phone calls, not clicks. "The biggest development may be pay-per-call ads," which all of the engines are testing and are sure to roll out soon, says BuzzMetrics' Stein. "Now the search engines will have something to sell."
KEEP AN EYE ON VIDEO
No piece of the convergence puzzle is as central, or as unfinished, as video search. Sure, you can find "Charlie Rose" clips on Google Video. But how do you zero in on a memorable turn of phrase from Rose's interview with Maureen Dowd? Or find Grandma's most humorous moments among all those hours of digital home video? Or replay Tom Cruise's couch-jumping moment on "Oprah?"
And, perhaps more importantly, how will the "Jetsons"-age, Google-ized set-top box know how to match the right "AdVideo" pre-roll spots with the results if it can't understand the details of the contents?
"There are masses of problems still to be solved," says BlinkX's Chandratillake. Scene detection, along with facial, object, and speech analysis, are all on the agenda for searching within video content. Existing systems index using inaccurate and cursory meta tags.
"TV isn't the killer app video is," says MPG's Griffin. BlinkX is pioneering speech-to-text approaches that can index video clips by gaining an understanding of their internal dialogue. The rough but wonderfully futuristic BlinkX.tv not only scours 1 million videos, it can also transform unique search terms into a personal media channel. Like TiVo on steroids, it gathers new video clips against an individual's search terms and can even dump them into a video iPod.
AOL is assembling a surprisingly strong video triple play. Partnering with Warner Bros. on In2TV, AOL sits on one of the world's largest online and offline video libraries. Its newly acquired startup Truveo claims to crawl the Web for videos the competition can't find with traditional spiders. New bundling and broadband promotion deals with providers like Verizon bring AOL closer to the very telecoms that will drive Internet-enabled TV set-tops in the future. Given its strengths in video content, technology, and distribution, AOL seems to have a very long ball in sight.
Nearly 8 million consumers are already conducting search queries on their wireless phones, according to M:Metrics.
Google's local search function is a promising mobile application that uses a map interface. Its deal with Motorola will hardwire the brand into wireless handsets. Yahoo has been even more effective in placing its search function and portal onto carrier decks. The forthcoming Yahoo Go Mobile promises to put Yahoo in your hand. Eventually the application will be able to program a TiVo set-top via wireless handset. But the major Web brands face credible threats from startups like JumpTap, 4Info, and UpSnap, which offer carriers better business models and challenge online search "results."
"No one at Google or Yahoo ever dreamed of sharing their revenues with SBC," notes Don Olschwang, CEO, JumpTap. While the big search engines want phones to serve as free pipes for their business model, JumpTap counters with a white-label search box for carriers that shares ad and listings revenues. Olschwang believes that a pay-per-call ad model on cell phones could become a bigger market than Web search.
And it could be more refined than Web search, too. Consumers want relevant answers, not "search results," adds Pankaj Shah, CEO, 4Info. As the mobile search solution for USA Today, 4Info answers text message queries with real-time results such as team scores and movie times. Though Google and Yahoo will score big on wireless handsets, Shah admits, "the differentiators will be how personalized [mobile search] is." For example, "answer engines" that send relevant results and learn from user histories may not only have the edge, but could help guide subsequent generations of search technology.
EARLY LEADS IN THE LISTINGS RACE
Like politics, most car, job, home, and personal advertising is local -- and vertical. Only a fraction of the $17 billion classified ads market is online, but providers like Monster.com, Cars.com, Apartments.com, and Craigslist remain key entry points for most people hunting for specific listings.
Search engines that want a piece of this business should be forewarned. "This is not an easy field, and the people in it have been here a long time and aren't stupid," says Peter Zollman, founder, Classified Intelligence. The newspapers, which own many of the online verticals, maintain powerful sales staffs, resources the search engines can only envy -- or partner with. Verticals defend against search engine advances with superior listings and contextual information that adds value.
Ultimately, this game is about who finds the local car and house hunter the right deals, and about searches that result in purchases. The real winners will not only search accurately and locally, but also facilitate and share in that apartment or car down payment. "It's about delivering results," says Zollman. "If they can prove results and participate in the transaction, then they hit a grand slam."
Controlling the database will become a battle royale. For example, Yahoo's Real Estate section claims as many homes as Realtor.com, and its HotJobs site uses the search engine to scrape employer sites around the Web for additional listings. Google's hunger for classifieds cooked up the Base product: free listings for anything and everything. Analysts expect the search engine to link the listings to long-rumored plans for a PayPal-like online payment system.
"I am convinced that Google Base will be a huge milestone," says 360i's Berkowitz. "When they come out with 'Google Wallet' it will be the first time Google makes money off of something besides paid search. It is a game changer."
NOT ON THE SAME PAGE
The Yellow Pages category remains the King Kong of the offline local ad market, but try as it may, it can't seem to scare a single online villager. And local search's slow start leaves the print brands, armed with massive sales forces and tight small- to medium-size business relationships, some room to maneuver.
"They have a play because they are operating in a vacuum," says Gary Stein. "No one is doing a good job in this space." With only a fraction of search engine traffic, Verizon's SuperPages.com boasts about 150 million monthly searches, while the recently re-launched YellowPages.com, the new BellSouth and AT&T joint venture, counts 90 million.
The print brands remain convinced they have a significant role to play. "Our goal is to maximize the direct relationship with consumers and have millions of business relationships directly," says Charles Stubbs, CEO, YellowPages.com, which is launching a multimillion-dollar ad campaign and promoting itself in 150 million phone books. YellowPages.com now distributes its listings via Yahoo Local, and Stubbs plans to syndicate the content liberally to create a network effect.
SuperPages is starting to work as a search engine marketing provider to help local clients buy keywords elsewhere. Eric Chandler, president, SuperPages.com, points to proprietary content, with more than 10 million detailed business profiles, as another added value, along with the ability to sell pay-per-call ads to local services. No one wants to predict how aggressive a partner, or even a sales force, the directories might become for Google and Yahoo. But it's clear that the Yellow Pages would prefer coopetition to a head-to-head showdown with search over local ad dollars. "I do believe a lot of the deals are waiting to happen," says Eric Chandler, president, SuperPages.com.
UPSTARTS AND STARTUPS
The search game ain't over until that query box springs from every nook and cranny in the mediaverse. Exciting startups are beginning to deliver technologies that serve audience niches, and they may end up powering the next generations of search.
The best results still come from vertical searches -- if you can lure consumers into querying specific content categories. Gigablast (www.gigablast.com) boasts 2 billion pages indexed across 600,000 topics along with new travel, government, and blog vertical engines. It's a quiet giant among many enterprise and public sector clients.
Similarly, Vivisimo's (www.vivisimo.com) clustering engine organizes results by topic, triggering relevant hits from deep within the search results; relevant results rise to the surface. Sphere.com is attracting buzz from its blog query engine beta, which adds timeliness to vertical search. Pulling down the most recent posts in a given keyword could be a godsend to the real-time blogosphere.
Social networking venues also hope to refine search algorithms. Take Eurekster's intriguing SwickiBuilder (swicki.eurekster.com), for example. "Swickis" use specific community click-through patterns to inform more relevant, reliable results.
If Web content becomes more video-oriented, then you can bet that the hip mecca of both trends, YouTube.com (www.youtube.com), will be on Google and Yahoo's to-buy list. And Rollyo (www.rollyo.com) has 16,000 users rolling their own Yahoo engine -- search boxes that query specific content sources that can then be shared with others.