The Future of Search: Why Humanoids Will Rein Over Androids

Social Search Series: This summer I am embarking on a journey through on the emerging web of Social Search.  Traditionally known as the Questions & Answers industry, this category is currently being transformed by social and mobile technologies.  No more asking a site questions and finding old answers.  I believe the future of the web is ingrained in the dynamic interdependence of social and informational networks.  This is part II of the series, you can find part I here.

In my last post I briefly covered how the nature of the web is rapidly shifting toward social.  I also noted the future of search does not look bright for Google, who seems to constantly struggle connecting social dots.  I call this new category (formerly known as Q&A) Social Search and here’s why I think it is emerging as the future of the web.

Semil Shah, in a recent post suggested Google is Asking the Wrong Question With Social.  He seems to agree with my stance:

Before the Internet, most “search” was conducted through offline directories and by the time-honored evolutionary tradition of asking questions. “Where would you recommend I stay on my trip to Hawaii?” “What dish did you order at that new restaurant in the hotel?” “Where can I get the best deal on that hotel?” Google has elegantly stripped down these queries and trained us to, instead, enter the following text in a search box: “Hawaii + hotel deal” or “Hawaii + restaurant + popular dish.”

Now, that might be how some geeks actually ask questions in real life, but this is not how we are wired to search. We are most accustomed to asking questions as an extension of our own curiosities.  And while Google keyword search is incredibly efficient, the content it points us to is unfortunately declining in quality. The bottom line is that although it’s never been easier to search online, it’s getting harder and harder to find exactly what we’re looking for because there are perverse incentives to not only create, but also promote, keyword-optimized content.

Eloquently put: traditional online search goes against our biological inclination of gathering information – asking questions.  Naturally, humans tend to search for information through asking other people questions because we intuitively know everyone is an expert at something.  And as hard as Google tries it cannot create an algorithm as intelligent as a human being, let alone harness the quality of knowledge curated from many different people and perspectives.

So what’s the point of social Q&A and why is it merging into the next form of search?

I would postulate the original point of asking questions – even dating back to prehistoric times – was actually search.  It was how humans searched for information before Google, PageRank and keywords were available.  Cavemen conducted searches when they asked others where they made their last killing for the same reason we, in the 21st century, type “pizza” into a Google search bar; to find out where to have dinner.  Because most humans are now constantly connected, it feels more natural to use social tools to find information.  Notice how often we send out messages on Facebook or twitter asking our friends  this or that, if they have eaten at a certain Pizzeria or seen the latest Transformers movie.  It is not a coincidence social questions are increasing at a rapid rate.

As I was talking to a CEO the other day he made an interesting analogy I think fits well in this discussion.  During the first internet wave (mid 90′s), it was fascinating how you could sit in a coffee shop in Seattle and somehow find information, communicate and do business with another person in a place like Tokyo.  Borders became irrelevant as the web layered on a communication system that spanned the globe.  Never before in human history had we experienced this phenomenon and it certainly was socially and economically transformational.  But today, do we really care about what is available to us in Tokyo?  More than what’s available in Seattle?  Do we want 1,000 different options displayed on 100 pages to requiring time and attention to sift through?  No, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way.  We care about what is going on down the street, in our social circle and in our immediate local surroundings.  We want to be shown what is MOST relevant to us at the moment (and not have to see the rest).

It seems the cycle in Search has followed the same trajectory.  Google broke through because it discovered the very best way to 1) index and organize the web and 2) bring us information matching specific keywords when we searched.  But it’s a different web now.  The problem is there’s just too much information on the web today.  Like, waaaaaaaaay too much.  The major player(s) are struggling to instantly sift out 99.999% of the information in the world so they can provide us the most relevant and useful .001% – our answer.  What they lack is intuition.

For example I live in Seattle and right now I am hungry for pizza, in fact New York Style Pizza, so I choose to do a quick search on Google “New York Style Pizza” to find an viable option.  Observing the image above, it is clear Google is lacking in the contextual department.  Lil’ Frankies and Big Al’s are both pizza joints in New York City!  Amazingly, nothing on the page has anything to do with pizza here in Seattle.  This is not good.  I’m pretty sure my friends on Facebook or even growing local social search platforms such as CrowdBeacon or LOCQL would provide me a New York style pizza option closer than 2,400 miles.  I am aware Google has made strides in localization, but it is not apparent when I quickly use their main search tool.  This simple query illustrates how broken search is at the moment.

It is becoming clear to me, as more  and more information gets created each day, how important our network of social contacts are in bringing us information. More specifically, those two phenomenons are inversely related – as the amount of information grows, the tighter and more important my social contacts become. Why? Because as the amount of information increases we need context and location to help determine relevance. Context can help determine if I am searching for a pizza place in New York or if I am looking for New York style pizza. Location helps define if I am indeed looking for a New York style pizza joint here in Seattle.

Another noteworthy contextual observation is the innate difference between certain search decisions, for instance searching for a clothing retailer versus searching for a restaurant. I would be fine buying a shirt from a distant retailer in New York City. Ordering pizza…? Not so much. Google’s Android DNA doesn’t seem to understand humanoid nuances at all. I guarantee a social search application (powered by my friends) would intuitively understand the contextual and location nuances within my searches.

Understandably, this is freaking Google out and forcing them to push socially awkward applications onto their users at an increasing pace. Unfortunately this is not how social works, you simply cannot rush things on the first date or you will never have the opportunity for a second one. Google+ looks to be their best social offering as of yet, but only time will tell if they have finally aligned the social dots.

It is now clear why Google purchased Aardvark, one of the social search companies I highlighted in my last post. Just read this brief overview and think of how it could help us search:

Aardvark is a way to get quick, quality answers to questions from your extended social network. You can ask questions via an instant message buddy or email. The questions are then farmed out to your contacts (and their contacts) based on what they say they have knowledge of. If you ask taste related questions about music, books, movies, restaurants, etc., they’ll ask people who tend to show similar tastes as you in their profile.

It will be interesting to see how (and if) Google integrates Aardvark to help navigate this new search territory. Regardless of the outcome, I do not think Google will loose its shirt anytime soon. They have a stranglehold on the overall search market and most realize there are many different channels in search. I agree with Semil,”This type of search, or social discovery, will become important, but it won’t dominate search—it’s just one channel, and different social networks exist for different parts of our lives.” 

This is just the beginning of an incredible change in how we will find and use information and I cannot wait to see what emerges. In five years (2016)  we will not be looking at a white screen with blinking cursor begging us to type a few short words into the search vault so it can pull thousand’s of links for us to plow through.

In my next post I will go in-depth on the first of the four quadrants of social search, an area I believe has yet to fully experience this massive technological revolution.

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