Saleel Sathe (Lead PM, MSN Search) argues that searchers will have to change their behavior and learn how to use search better:
"Search engines have shot themselves in the foot by providing a search box, where users provide relatively little information," Sathe said.Bradley Horowitz (head of Technology Development Group at Yahoo Search) argues that we should throw out existing web search and replace it with social search:
"The average search query is 2.3 words... but if you asked a librarian for information you would not just give them 2.3 words -- you would give them the opportunity to give you the rich detailed answer you want."
"Where is the next big breakthrough that gets beyond PageRank? PageRank confers a privilege to Webmasters who vote by proxy for all of us."Matthew Glotzbach (Director, Google) argues that the computer should do the work and figure out what people need from whatever information is available:
"What we think is the next major breakthrough is social search. It basically democratises the notion of relevance and lets ordinary users decide what's important for themselves and other users," said Horowitz.
"In the distant future we will not be able to get you to take more action ... We will get close enough with what you give us. A lot of emphasis will continue on doing that in the background -- getting the technology to figure out [what you want]," [Matthew] said.MSN (and, until recently, A9) wants to give you more powerful tools. Yahoo wants the community of users to help improve search. Google wants computers to do all the work to get you what you need.
"Larry Page [the co-founder] of Google often says, 'the perfect search engine would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want'."
But all of these strategies face formidable challenges.
There certainly is promise in treating search as a dialogue -- an iterative process rather than a one-shot deal -- but I think any attempt by MSN to get users to do more work is doomed from the start. People are lazy, appropriately so. They want what they want and they want it now. If you don't find it for them quickly and easily, they'll switch to a tool that will.
Yahoo's social search, as I've said before, faces two major hurdles: spam and non-participation.
Spam, oh glorious spam. Letting ordinary users decide what others see is great until those ordinary users discover the profit in promoting their own sites. Whether the wisdom of the crowd can overpower the hucksters of the bazaar remains to be seen.
And these lofty notions of replacing a supposed "vote by proxy" tyranny of webmasters with a democracy of widespread participation will succumb to the reality that, again, users are lazy, and few will participate if it requires effort. At best, vote by one proxy will be replaced by vote by another proxy, something Bradley himself has acknowledged.
But, Google's chosen path is a daunting one as well. It is very hard to figure out what you want in the face of limited, noisy information about what you actually want. The key to this likely will be to use all information available, including your history of searches, but development of scalable, high quality, personalized search is still in the baby steps of its infancy.
No matter how you look at it, it's an exciting time for search. Much will happen in the coming years.