Thoughts on Search Panel at AlwaysOn Stanford Summit

Published by on August 11, 2006

At the AlwaysOn 2006 Stanford Summit in July, Bambi Francisco of Marketwatch moderated an excellent Panel focused on what the Search Guys were learning from the data they have on our search behaviors. The panelists were Usama Fayyad, Chief Data Officer, Yahoo; Jim Lanzone, CEO,; Peter Norvig, Search and Quality Director, Google; and Michael Yavonditte, CEO, Quigo

Blog posting, by Dan Farber, Renee Blodgett, and Francisco herself, cover the panel well, here mainly I’m adding my reactions. Noticeably missing was Microsoft, but thrown into the mix, is Quigo as an Ad player. The panel was mostly devoid of company posturing, though plenty of data-supported commentary, mostly true to respective corporate positions.

Relevance and Advertising. Let’s start here, since really, no matter how much beyond search talk gets dished out, standard consumer search, i.e. QIRO (query in, results out), with its marvelous money printer, advertising, is not fading soon. The pressure will remain on market size, market share, and monetization of share. This means an ongoing obsession with extending the range of queries that “relevance” on top 10 result pages serves well. And on increasing the relevance of the ads to get greater return on marketshare. All panelists, mostly indirectly, reflected an alignment to this business reality.

With Quigo buying millions of keywords, Yavonditte emphasized Search works quite well now. Lanzone pointed out that Ask shed the fancier “natural language” approach with 10 words that wasn’t really doing better than two words queries on Google, and that they are now there with a search engine that produces world class relevance with two word queries. Fayyad pointed out, even amidst “change the game” and “search is not enough” comments, that they had to be careful not to mess up search, and I think he was alluding to more than whether it works for finding things or not. Sure, search works well. For what it works well for. Though all the panelists showed nuance, not utterly blinded by economic interests, their organizations are subject to such realities.

It’s not too early to see that the incumbents will face their own version of the innovator’s dilemma. Microsoft has the best incentive for disrupting the current model, because they have other ways to make money. Yavonditte pointed out that Microsoft was doing an interesting thing in sharing some of their data with their advertisers. Google must find another rocket ship that goes straight to the moon or other places without ordinary gravity, while evolving quickly to prolong and parlay the golden days of their current weightless franchise. Yahoo, with its stash of login accounts, range of Internet services, and opportunity around social media, is in-between.

Richer Interaction. These current interests aside, all panelists talked of better interactions for the user, albeit cautiously not just for financial reasons. Lanzone made the point that lots of things that sound like good ideas don’t necessarily help the user. People don’t like messing with a bunch of dials and buttons up front. They like to get going and then refine things as they go. The simple white search box allows them to do that.

In general, nobody seems to be using user profile data to improve relevance for a given user. Both Norvig and Lanzone explicitly said a user’s search history isn’t used for this purpose and isn’t likely to be useful. However, Ask and the others are all down the path of providing more than “ten blue links.” Enrichening the dialogue loop, not so much on the query in, but exactly on what comes out. Norvig used the common metaphor of the dialogue with a librarian.

Vertical Search Lanzone commented that nobody wants to remember 26 sites to go to search for different things, while Norvig pointed out that custom interfaces do make sense, as in Finance, and in Travel. These apparantly for and against points are really both for points. For effective user experiences. A single point of entry is about minimizing user load on getting started. While the right interface provides the scaffolding for the user in getting something done, a good kind of rigidity.

Supporting effective information seeking depends on both the content and user side of the dialogue. Content in certain domains is quite, say, slanted, to the point that it can even look like a separate language, e.g. say medicalese. Fayyad talked about the value of knowing the context you are in when searching, using the example of searching for Jaguar on an automobile site. Norvig certainly would emphasize that with enough data you can start to pull structure out that just wasn’t feasible to do so before. True enough, but as Fayyad points out in a separate interview, an ounce of knowledge is worth a ton of data.

Same goes for competent user experience design. It’s not clear that Google or the others have all the advantage because of content or query streams. In specialized searches, solid information architecture and functionality design around structured search and faceted navigation can be created by newcomers. The biggest advantage the incumbents have is being the starting points of Internet experience. The first box doesn’t mean one box is sufficient, but it does mean control over other boxes.

Portals and Social Media. Yahoo has broader and deeper Internet login services than any of the others. Knowing what people do in many aspects of their Internet life has got to be worth more than having ever more data on just queries. In the old days, using data to improve products would be great, because people paid directly for products. In the new days, you have to figure out how to connect data to money through advertising. Fayyad pointed out ownership of a greater share of time allows for more effective repetition of advertising. But, surely, we can get beyond not just search, but beyond advertising as the only model too.

Though people are willing to pay for experiences or experience goods offline, direct pay models on the Internet are still far behind the advertising model. Music hasn’t quite yet blazed a success yet, but I think it will. Meanwhile with video, as Norvig, Lanzone, Fayyad all pointed out, it’s very early days. Mostly just emailing around of links to outrageous videos of the day. Here too an obsession with advertising with Yavonditte pointing out that these early days pose challenges to advertising. Sure and such challenges will get sorted out, since some portion of video media will make sense under this model.

In sorting out how to support our broader digital experiences, Yahoo has the relative advantage, though my understanding is that they are viewed as uncool amongst teens and young adults. Shocking perhaps for a company that is not much over a decade old, until you read this as not a changing of old minds, but a generational shift to new minds. Though this talk of young and cool may seem to stick us to advertising models, perhaps not, consider games.

Given that time and attention are the bounded resource, it seems likely that people will be ever more willing to pay directly for digital products or Internet-based experiences. We all pay for computing and communication infrastructure now. We can see the beginnings of consumer pays in Internet games, music, subscriptions, hosted service extensions and so on. Ultimately, direct pay is necessary to create the broader range of products and services that work well across the niches and slices of life.

View online

Leave a Reply