Search Innovation: Looking for the Average Joe

Google's beta release of their desktop search tool was their shot across the bow of the USS Microsoft Search. Following hard on the heels of promising technology releases from Blinkx and Copernic, Google is staking their claim to the desktop search space.

And Microsoft seems to have been caught flat-footed, as they continue to push back the deadline for the release of Longhorn, which will integrate desktop search with the operating system. Many seem to think a search related announcement out of Redmond, Wash. is imminent.

So, if one looks at what's come out of the major search engine labs lately, you'll see a rush of new technologies centered on the ideas of desktop search, local search, indexing of rich media, and personalized search. It seems that everything we've been talking about in the past three years is suddenly coming on the market in one fell swoop.

This has prompted a number of analysts to start asking where search is going. I've been firmly seated on that particular bandwagon, adding my own prognostications to the many that are out there. But sometime last week, I slapped my forehead and pronounced myself an idiot (beating several others to the punch).



It really isn't the release of technology that will dictate where search is going. It's the public's acceptance of that technology. And I'm not speaking about a few techno geeks huddled in the cool blue glow of a LCD flat screen. I'm talking about the masses.

Innovation Only Makes a Difference When It's Accepted

There is a dilemma that is inherent in technical innovation. As the innovators, we tend to get caught up in the possibilities of technology and base our business decisions on it. But the fact is that the success of technology only takes place with widespread adoption by the general public.

In the high tech business, we tend to be surrounded with others like ourselves. We are the classic early adopters, looking for the latest technological gizmo. We tweak our computers and other various electronic gadgets, spend hours tracking down problems with drivers, and happily put up with bug after bug to gain an edge over the less technically savvy.

In our biz, we all tend to be members of this relatively small segment of the real world. Unfortunately, we sometimes make decisions that seem valid because everyone we talk to agrees with us. It's not until the public flatly rejects our innovations that we realize it was never capable of going beyond the research lab.

So, if you ask me, or any of the others who have been writing about this, which of the emerging search innovations will make the difference in the industry, you might be asking the wrong person. I'm a geek. Go ask your Aunt Mildred, but be prepared to spend some time explaining what you're talking about.

Public Adoption Can't be Rushed...

As early adopters, we work on a radically different time line than the general public. We tend to leap into new technology before it's fully tested. We move in a matter of weeks or months to try the latest new thing. The rest of the world takes years. So as we try out local search, desktop search, and personalized search, remember that the latest developments will probably take a long time to trickle down to the average Joe... unless you leave no options!

This opens up a rather interesting advantage for Microsoft in the search game. Because of their domination of so many parts of our interaction with our computers, they can force adoption of a new technology to an extent no one else can. Every other player, including Google, has to convince us that their technological innovations are worth using. Microsoft can leave us with no choice. So Google will continue to roll things out of their search lab, and we will eagerly install the latest beta.

Someday (probably soon) a major development will come out of Redmond about Microsoft Search. We "in the know" will rush to pronounce it a failure, or success, but the judgment isn't really ours to make. It's the millions of people who have no idea that Google now has a desktop search tool, or that Microsoft is integrating search into their operating system, that will ultimately make the difference. And they will only bestow that success when they're good and ready.

The winner of search will be the one who is the shrewdest about controlling that timeline.

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