What Is a Search Engine?

What is a Search Engine?

Three pieces in the last 24 hours have left me wondering about whether what we think of as a tool for retrieving information might not be much more than that.

They concern the extension of platforms, the ability of distributed information to enable competitive comparisons, and the potential of community-based searching – think about a search engine that knows the preferred sources of legal researchers.

This morning’s RoB has a piece from the Wall Street Journal on how Google results can now be texted to a mobile phone. An open link to the facts behind the story can be found at http://www.searchenginejournal.com/index.php?p=2468

Then a piece from Sunday’s NYT by Steve Lohr on the front page piece “Just googling it is striking fear into companies”. [My apologies for linking to a registration site, but these two are worth the price of admission – which is nothing].

He describes how the ability to access and compare large amounts of information is making Google a competitive force whose moves are being watched carefully by Walmart:

As Google increasingly becomes the starting point for finding information and buying products and services, companies that even a year ago did not see themselves as competing with Google are beginning to view the company with some angst – mixed with admiration.

Google’s recent moves have stirred concern in industries from book publishing to telecommunications. Businesses already feeling the Google effect include advertising, software and the news media. Apart from retailing, Google’s disruptive presence may soon be felt in real estate and auto sales.

Google, the reigning giant of Web search, could extend its economic reach in the next few years as more people get high-speed Internet service and cellphones become full-fledged search tools, according to analysts. And ever-smarter software, they say, will cull and organize larger and larger digital storehouses of news, images, real estate listings and traffic reports, delivering results that are more like the advice of a trusted human expert.

Then finally a fascinating piece by James Fallows called A Journey to the Center of Yahoo on the introduction of community feedback mechanisms into Yahoo’s search offerings [also NYTimes].

Fallows talks about “social” or “community” searching, in which each attempt to find the right restaurant listing, medical advice site, vacation tip or other bit of information takes advantage of other people’s successes and failures in locating the same information.

The idea that human judgment can improve a search engine’s automatic findings is hardly new. From the dawn of the Web’s history – that is, over the last 15 years – companies have invented tools to help users assess the quality and relevance of information, often by relying on others’ opinions. Examples include Amazon’s user reviews, eBay’s feedback ratings and “trusted networks” created on many sites.

What is different is Yahoo’s systematic plan to build “community intelligence” into nearly all aspects of its operation – and in turn, to entice users to spend more and more of their time on Yahoo sites, where they can see Yahoo ads. The clearest example can be seen at http://myweb2.search.yahoo.com , the beta version of a new search site.

A query from this page will return results from three sources. One is “My Web,” or pages each user has marked and asked Yahoo to save for later reference. (These pages are saved by Yahoo itself, on its servers, and don’t gum up your own machine.) Another is “Everyone’s Web,” the general Internet. Finally, there is “My Community’s Web,” pages marked as interesting or valuable by members of a social network. Thus, a search for information on new cars would bring up normal Web results, but also listings you had seen and wanted to retain, as well as friends’ advice on brands and dealers they had tried.

Setting up a social network to provide advice can take time. But Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr and now a Yahoo executive, pointed out that virtually everyone under 30 had already created such networks. What about those not young or hip enough to have done so yet? Eventually, according to Ms. Fake, more users would create networks as the process became easier and more worthwhile. Mr. Nazem said, “We’re really about getting the average consumer to move their lives online.”

Why should Yahoo’s community intelligence be better than others’ half-successful earlier attempts? This is where its argument about scale comes in. “It is a key strength that our community is so large,” said Mr. Semel, who has seen Yahoo’s user base double in his four years as chief executive. With hundreds of millions of users, there is critical mass to create social networks that cover most locations and interests – for instance, a large and active user group among women in the United Arab Emirates.

One thing is plain – the idea that a search engine is a simple phenomenon isn’t true now – if it ever was.

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