What's the Point Of Search?

I've tackled some heady questions over the years as a Search Insider -- "Why Can't Everything Be Searchable?""Will Search Personalization Create Self-Fulfilling Prophecies?""Should We Fear Ambient Findability?""Is MyLifeBits the Future of Personalized Search?" And who could forget, "Is Search Rocket Science?"

Today, I'll go for the jugular: What's the point of search?

Why Ask What?



Ironically, what prompted me to address this question was a response to a query I put out to my Twitter followers to help me pick a topic for this column. @DanPerry replied, "Anything but Twitter. :)"

Twitter has certainly been all the rage lately. It's been front and center on and even got its own segment on "The Daily Show." John Battelle and Michael Arrington weighed in on Twitter's application to search. And it's been a muse of sorts for my fellow Search Insiders -- Gord Hotchkiss, David Berkowitz, and Chris Copeland. Needless to say, Twitter is a front-runner for my buzzword bingo at the upcoming Search Insider Summit.

Rest assured, Dan, this won't be another Twitter piece. But the groundswell around Twitter and its impact on search has made me realize that we need to define what the point of search really is.

You Want Answers?

John Battelle's post on the Looksmart Thought Leadership site encapsulates the enigma that is Twitter. Beyond a mere micro-blogging platform, Twitter has emerged as a real-time search engine. While Google can return millions of relevant digital assets against a query, Twitter, as Battelle puts it, can tell you, "What are people saying about (my query) right now?"

Meanwhile, you have search purveyors (and, I might add, natural-born Google Killers) like Wolfram Alpha (which David Berkowitz covered in a recent column) and Cha Cha (which Chris Copeland thinks Twitter should buy) taking a unique approach to what they deem to be the proper way to address a query -- not with results, but with answers.

And, of course, the general search engines all have their variations of one-box results in which certain queries return attempts at answers above the natural results.

But just what is the point of search? Is it to find results? Is it to find answers? Or is it something more than that?

Theoretically Speaking

Per Merriam-Webster, search is a transitive verb that means "to look into or over carefully or thoroughly in an effort to find or discover something." Well, that's pretty broad. I think the "search" that we, search marketers, are concerned with more closely resembles "search theory," which Wikipedia defines as "the study of an individual's optimal strategy when choosing from a series of potential opportunities of random quality, given that delaying choice is costly." While the "opportunities" returned on a SERP are hardly of random quality, there is certainly an element of opportunity cost when choosing what search engine to use, keyword to query, and result to click on. There's also an opportunity cost with turning to a search engine at all vs. your Twitter followers or even, gasp, calling a trusted friend or family member.

As the headline to the Wikipedia entry for "search theory" says, "This article is about the economics of search problems." Ultimately, isn't that what search is all about? Consumers search because they have a problem that they need a solution to. They're looking for a place to eat, article to reference, gift to purchase, etc. And those of us in the search marketing ecosystem -- engines, marketers, agencies, and tech providers alike -- are all deeply invested in the economics of how these problems are addressed.

I'd go one step further here and say that "matching theory" might be the best analogy of them all. Per Wikipedia, "matching theory, also known as search and matching theory, is a mathematical framework describing the formation of mutually beneficial relationships over time. It offers a way of modeling markets in which frictions prevent instantaneous adjustment of the level of economic activity."

Now, I don't claim to be an expert on economics, but a lot of these concepts make sense to me as a search guy. Matching theory seems to provide the rationale for why Google jumped into TV, radio and print. (Although it doesn't explain why it gave up on two of those three -- personally, I think those moves were short-sighted.) It also provides some context for Google's endeavors to solve the world's energy crisis. It's all about using math to remove friction and create mutually beneficial relationships -- whether between media buyers and sellers or between "energy hardware and information software." And certainly each of these platforms leverages real-time attributes tied directly to economic activity.

One Small Step for Search

Today, search is just one step in addressing a problem and finding a solution. When making travel plans to attend the Search Insider Summit, you might Google "Cheap Flights RSW" and then Yahoo "Rental Car Ft. Myers" before Kumo-ing (oy!) "South Seas Resort Reservations." A decade ago, you'd have just called a travel agent, who certainly would've taken the friction out of the equation by handling everything for you on the back-end and just forwarding over your itinerary.

Is it too much to expect this same output from a search engine? And is it too much to ask that this output be available not through a series of keyword queries, but through the semantic mapping of a request like "Book Travel to Search Insider Summit." Not if you ask previous SIS keynoter Esther Dyson (see quote here) or Web pioneer Tim Berners Lee (see scenario here.)


When thinking about the future of search and whether a new platform like Twitter might be the Google Killer, might I suggest stopping and thinking about whether said platform addresses the true point of search -- which, in my mind, is the ability to solve a problem by using math or science to remove friction and create economically favorable outcomes for all. Once that nut is cracked, it's game, set, match.

4 comments about "What's the Point Of Search?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Gene Sower from Samson Media LLC, March 18, 2009 at 10:21 a.m.

    I honestly think that the role of search is to produce results, relevant results, and not answers, per se. Because unless you take human beings out of the equation or standardize the ways and means of conducting searches, how could the Googles of the world ever really understand, anticipate and think-through a search query with any kind of accuracy? For instance, take a look at 25+ year old voice recognition technology. It still mauls what it hears and returns often hilarious interpretations of what it THINKS I'm asking for. I say the search engines should remain focused on continuing to refine and return RELEVANT search RESULTS and leave the answers up to us humans.

    Gene Sower

  2. Doug Huffman, March 18, 2009 at 12:24 p.m.

    Twitter habitues are not capable of a well formed question that Wolfram|Alpha use.

    The conspiracy of ignorance masquerades as common sense.

  3. William Alvarez from Conversion Action LLC, March 18, 2009 at 12:29 p.m.

    "Answer-Focused Search" is a concept that Jakob Nielsen brought up in 2004 on his Alertbox column "When Search Engines Become Answer Engines". It can still be found, of course, at

    Most SEOs that see Search as merely a commercial boom (because they are making a profit out of it with seminars and conferences) like to push the industry to believe that emerging technologies, social media tools like Twitter and other forms of communication are search engines, as opposed to new ways for people to consume information.

  4. Steve Plunkett from Cool Websites Organization, March 26, 2009 at 6:46 a.m.

    Good Article(s),
    Now look at history and think about when there was IRC, then there was EFnet, IRCnet, etc.. at some point do you think there may be fragmentation in twitter? groups, etc..?

    I think once Google combines google checkout, digg, yelp, ebay and amazon into each search query when searching for products then you may get the best of math, science and social.. more choices to search from..

Next story loading loading..