What's Happening in Search
Description:
In this issue we talk about controlling online media costs, balancing risk in new interactive channels, and understanding the direction in which search is heading.

What's Happening in Search

Fall 2009

What's Happening in Search (and What's Happening Next)

by: Michael Wunsch
q4-2009-whats-happening-in-search

There’s been a lot of buzz recently about a little thing called Bing! While not having the immediate lift that Microsoft was hoping for and that some pundits predicted, it has caused shockwaves in the search community. Advertised as the “Decision Engine” and backed by a $500 million ad campaign, it does not seem to live up to its billing yet, but does bring some hope as the third most popular search platform.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is certainly behind the promise of Bing, as he says the company is willing to put 10 percent of its operating income behind the new search engine. Add that to the likelihood that Microsoft will own Yahoo! by the end of the summer, and you have what many in the search community have been longing for: someone to seriously compete with Google.

Yahoo! has also made some changes and recently launched its newest version of Yahoo.com. The new site is more of a social media aggregator that supports contextual ads. The concept is much cleaner than previous versions and allows users to set up RSS feeds and even view their Facebook activity from within Yahoo!. The site can also suggest widgets based on the user’s search behavior, taking Yahoo! to a whole new level.

Another new search engine offers its own unique spin on search. Wolfram|Alpha crunches data to provide answers that may not even exist online until a user searches for them. Wolfram|Alpha is an entirely new concept that is meant to compliment what existing search engines already do. Rather than searching for matching keywords and terms, Wolfram|Alpha pulls data sets approved by the site’s staff.

Wolfram|Alpha provides its users with mathematical answers to their searches, answers that a more traditional search engine would require these users to calculate on their own. For example, say a user attempts to find the calorie count of a chocolate cake recipe. While a traditional engine can provide a listing of the nutritional information for each item included in the recipe, Wolfram|Alpha will take this data and add it up to provide the user with the cake’s total calories.

Several other search engines have sprung up recently, driven by a need for more categorized results. These search engines hope to provide faster and smarter user searches that are also more targeted, personal, and visually appealing.

  • HAKIA - This search engine provides personalized results that users would find the most interesting based on their web usage.
  • SEARCHME - This search engine provides its users with an interface similar to iTunes. Users are able to shuffle through photos and images rather than a listing of hyperlinks like in typical search results.
  • KOSMIX - This search engine provides users with information bundled by type—e.g., whether it came from Twitter, Google, blogs, etc.—to allow an easy way for users to absorb it all.

SEARCH RESULTS ARE EVOLVING


While not a new concept, Universal Search will take on a more prominent role in 2010, and all three of the major engines are in a rush to bring it 100 percent to market this year. Simply put, Universal Search is the process of returning listings for images, videos, reviews, blogs, news, and local listings all on the same search engine results page (SERP). The implications are huge for marketers, as this means the potential for share of voice is increased dramatically. Imagine a world where a search for one term lands your brand in five spots on the same page. The shift for SEO is tremendous, as the top listing becomes only part of the equation.

As categorization becomes the new buzzword, it will bring a new complexity to search engine optimization, but one thing will remain constant—relevancy. Universal Search and the concept of categorization will force content marketers to align by segments with unique messages and coordinated topics so that content does not become fragmented.

Search results across the major search engines will also have a more real-time flavor with news and blog postings listed as they happen.


WHAT WOULD AN ARTICLE BE WITHOUT MENTIONING TWITTER?


The newest search engine that seems to have the potential for the biggest seismic impact on the way users search comes from the social media realm. Twitter is working to capitalize on the rapid pace of online news by providing its users with the ability to perform real-time searches for online discussions, a feature that Google has as of yet failed to provide.

In the eyes of some, Twitter has the potential to be as important to real-time search as YouTube is to video. Twitter is able to provide lightning- quick access to breaking news with links to reports, blogs, and images from the event as it unfolds.

With the recent death of pop star Michael Jackson, most folks in our office bypassed traditional search and went straight to Twitter for real- time news and conversations. It is important to note that Twitter servers did crumble under the pressure, a whale that reared its ugly head many times that night. But even with this minor setback, Twitter proved that its real-time search capabilities place it above the rest. While Google does include news sites in its searches, it lacks Twitter’s speed for providing timely news coverage. When it comes to current events, Twitter has greater scope and also provides instant updates—something Google cannot do.

Twitter Search, as a result, has become a more popular means of tracking breaking news among an increasing number of users. But, it doesn’t stop there. Twitter Search has also become a popular tool for finding information about market trends as well as connecting with people with shared interests who can provide insight into the user’s specific search questions. It enables users to access real-time conversations about local topics— everything from the best restaurants to the best car dealerships.

So how does it do it? Twitter’s search engine looks for keywords in recent user tweets that match the search request and ranks them with the most recent keywords first. This means the top post might only be a few seconds old. Google’s index, while very extensive, tends to appear static when compared to Twitter. Twitter provides information in seconds rather than the hours or even days it might take Google to index new content.

Twitter’s incorporation of search functionality into its site makes it easier to gather trending information for popular keywords, enabling a deeper analysis of real-time conversations as well as a quicker way of finding relevant topics. Twitter is more than a way to interact with others; it’s also a huge pool of information that is based on the lives of its users.

While there is considerable hoopla surrounding Twitter, it will be several years before the site develops both the technology and accurate search results that will enable it to chip into Google’s massive market share. However, there are several reasons why Twitter still has a good chance of becoming the future face of search.

  • Twitter Search is essentially the ultimate social media platform. It has the potential to help users access the opinions of others as well as add context to relevant information. This enables searchers to learn more about facts and user experiences. A search for the best place to buy fruit and vegetables in a specific area can now include real-world assessments, taking the search results beyond a mere directory listing of stores.
  • Twitter will filter the vast, almost bottomless well of online content, enabling searches for quick information or longer articles thanks to users who post links to pages they like or find useful. 3. Twitter makes content available in real-time. Information, especially breaking news, can be placed at searchers’ fingertips as the event is happening and reported by people on the scene. Users do not have to wait several hours for reporters to write stories and for Google to index them for its search results.
  • Twitter gives every user an online voice. The big web-controlling entities like online publishers, news companies, and even other search engines have had their powers shifted to users of social media. News will be based now on individuals and their firsthand experiences rather than news stories that pool these experiences for a single line of information.
  • Twitter can provide targeted, localized information for a user far more effectively than Google. This enables searches to generate more relevant results, regarding both information and advertising.
Despite its strengths, there are some potential stumbling blocks in Twitter’s path toward becoming a respectable and reliable search engine. Search relevancy remains a sticky point; currently, search findings are sorted by date rather than by relevancy, which makes it difficult for users to determine the value of the returned information.

The swine flu coverage provided by Twitter users placed a spotlight on the social network’s shortcomings in this area. Rather than moving to established and recognized authorities, Twitter users instead reacted to unsubstantiated claims via user tweets. Unlike search engine requests looking for more information, Twitter conversations about swine flu have been accused of being motivated by user desires to fit in, do what their friends are doing, or simply gain more popularity and followers. As a result, Twitter users misinformed other users and started a panic by broadcasting their fears rather than facts. For Twitter searches to be truly relevant, all participants must be genuine. The potential for Twitter to become a home for spammers and marketers who are merely pushing links and deals could potentially damage Twitter Search’s results.

For its value as a search tool to grow, Twitter must first augment its search capabilities and build a reliable algorithm for its searches. Steps are being taken to enhance the system and provide the remedy to these ailments. The path to search respectability will also depend on whether its own users turn to Twitter for their searches. At present, most Twitter users do not rely on Twitter Search for a majority of their inquiries.

To address these concerns, Twitter is planning to include links referenced in tweets as part of its search function. There is a sizeable number of these links already, so if Twitter continues to grow as projected, these links could eventually represent a large portion of the web’s overall content. This would make Twitter Search a far more effective and complete search engine capable of competing with Google.

There are also plans to add a reputation ranking system that will rank tweets by the tweeters’ credibility ratings. Potential criteria for these rankings would include the number of followers and retweets the individual has, thereby enabling users to make more sense of their Twitter search results.

BIG PLAYERS IN SEARCH: MARKET SHARE

THE DOOR’S OPEN—BUT FOR HOW LONG?

While the potential for Twitter to offer valuable, real-time search results exists, some areas of concern outside of the site’s search capabilities cast shadows on the ultimate fate of Twitter Search. As of yet, Twitter has not caught on with younger users. According to a study performed by the Participatory Marketing Network, almost all 18- to 24-year-old consumers report participating in at least one social networking site, but only 22 percent of them mention using Twitter. In addition, comScore found that the majority of these users access the service primarily to follow friends or celebrities. Family members and company tweets do not generate as much interest.

Another problem lies in the long- term popularity of Twitter. While Twitter users in the United States are expected to exceed 12 million this year, Nielsen Online reports that usage might be as fleeting as its 140 character messages. According to Nielsen, 60 percent of U.S. users sign up for Twitter but then do not return to the social network the following month. This equates to a retention rate of only 40 percent.

As mentioned previously, Twitter is taking steps to verify the reliability of its users and, thus, substantiate the accuracy of user postings. If this hurdle can be cleared, it can open the door for Twitter to become a reliable search engine alternative with even greater popularity. Some critics, though, feel the true future of search will not be Google or Twitter but somewhere between the two, provided by a search engine that combines traditional local search with the social media stream of real- time discussions.

MOBILE SEARCH: THE INTERNET IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND

An even more convenient form of localized search has begun to grow in popularity and is expected to have a real impact in the near future. More users are turning to their mobile devices for online searches, especially for local ones.

The ability to use a mobile phone to search the Internet has freed users from having to search for information about local businesses and services from their homes, while better devices have allowed a more seamless online experience on the road. As a result, more users are relying on mobile search to find local information. In fact, projections estimate that by 2013, almost 30 percent of mobile users around the globe will be using local mobile search services.

Mobile search is, at its core, very much local search. Businesses large and small can capitalize on it as a means to connect with consumers, and local search in particular will benefit a great deal from the qualities inherent to mobile devices. According to a study performed by the Kelsey Group, local search volume will rise from 28 percent to 35 percent of all mobile searches by 2013.

The trend toward mobile search is not without statistical precedent. Reporting by comScore at the end of 2008 found that there were 228 million mobile phone users. The number of phone users with Internet access rose by 47.4 percent from 2007 to 2008. The rising popularity of Smartphones like the iPhone has added to this, with the total number of U.S. mobile phone users with mobile browsers rising 43 percent from 30.7 million in June 2007 to 44 million in June 2008.

In addition, a 2008 study by the PEW Research Center found that 62 percent of Americans are members of a wireless mobile group and participate in digital activities away from their homes and work. M:Metrics also reported in 2008 that nearly 95 percent of iPhone users access the mobile web for news and information, and 60 percent use the mobile web for mobile search.

This growing number of mobile searches is expected to impact advertising spending down the road. The Kelsey Group released a study that projects mobile web and targeted advertising to rise from $20 million in 2008 to $1.3 billion by 2013. This represents a 130 percent annual growth for local search spending.

While mobile search advertising is still considered experimental by some marketers, the expected growth of mobile search volume will attract more attention in the near future. And with this growth, mobile search will have to address the weaknesses it faces with regard to search relevance. In fact, the major search providers are making efforts to deliver a more contextually shaped, mobile search user experience. For example, Yahoo!’s oneSearch service considers the location of the user’s phone as well as the context of the search request. The information it then provides is prioritized with contextual relevance to help meet the demands of the user.

Get ready for a wild ride in search circles for the next year.

So What does The Future Look Like? Some Predictions:

  • By the time we watch the ball drop in Times Square this December, major shifts will have likely resulted in a Microsoft/ Yahoo! combo that creates a powerhouse worthy of dueling with Google.
  • It is also highly likely that Google courts Twitter and brings real-time search results to their arsenal.
  • Mobile search will become a staple in search engine optimization and online advertising.
  • Universal Search will be present for all search results.
  • Categorized search will have passed as the hot new search buzzword.