We’ve all heard the old adage that the search problem is only 5% solved. My news today is that I got a much better idea of what the next few percent will look like, largely from a Microsoft sponsored session this morning here at the Web2.0 Summit talking where they are taking Bing. It was a pretty impressive session and I was left thinking that they had done a good job of thinking where search works at the moment, where it doesn’t, and what the small concrete things they can do about that.
Some examples (and I could have given many more):
- The ‘hover feature’ which allows you to preview more of the content on a page before clicking on the link, so you will have less of the frustrating hitting the back button to return you to the results page when you click on a link that you hoped would give you what you want, but turns out not to
- Including facts in search results – going beyond far beyond weather to include many more facts e.g. traffic and flight status if you type in a flight number
- Bringing the features that you would use from sites direct into the search results – e.g. a search for UPS brings you a UPS track parcel search box right into the results
- Visual search for shopping so you can flick through literally thousands of e.g. HDTV’s, and they have some nice tools to refine the search based on parameters – e.g. 37-42 inch TVs
- Bringing aggregated review results direct into search results, and they have done some nice work helping the user to quickly derive meaning from the reviews
Stepping up a level, these initiatives are changing what search is about, which is a response to changes in consumer intent when they are searching. When we first started searching we were generally looking for a link to a site that we knew – so the intent was navigational. That remains the case for a large number of queries, but for an increasing proportion the intent is simply to find information. For this set of customers the search paradigm changes from being one of ‘get me off the search engine and to where I want to get to as fast as you can’ to ‘get me to the information as fast as you can’.
In other words search engines are becoming destination sites in their own right, in part at least.
Four of the five Bing features I list above can be understood in this light (check out the screenshots below).
Notice I have not said that all of this will be enough for Microsoft to take a chunk out of Google, but I do think it gives them a shot, and at the very least we will get some good parallel innovation from Google. Taking a more optimistic view you can see a scenario where the search market gets more competitive and margins start to come down which, amongst other things, would reduce the cost of clicks and hence customer acquisition for many startups. Remember also that we are talking about a paradigm shift in search which is one of the reasons I think MSFT has a chance.
In related news we have just heard that Microsoft and Twitter have done a deal which will see the full firehose turning up in Bing search results. It is unclear how that will look over time, but realtime is another area where search becomes more destination site than hop off point.
Update: I’m listening to Marissa Meyer announcing that Google is now also receiving the full Twitter firehose and talking about some neat social additions to their search results page