What Happens when the Whole World Becomes Searchable?

First published September 21, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There are a few items that crossed the threshold of my inbox recently that led me to speculate about search in the grand scheme of things.

First of all, fellow Search Insider David Berkowitz talked about online data storage, and how it could introduce reams of new content into online depositories, there to be connected to by consumers through search.

Secondly, Apple and Google are in talks about iTV, Apple’s new set-top box that allows you to view downloaded video on your TV, at the same time making it searchable.

Welcome to e-World

The fact is, the whole world is becoming digitized and indexable. It’s not a new trend, it’s been making inroads for the last two and a half decades, but there seems to be a tipping point of convergence that’s rapidly approaching. National and international news is almost fully digitized, and local news is following in the same footsteps. There are now digital editions of most periodicals. And Google is doing its level best to digitize every book ever written. So the print world is well on the way.

The Genetics of Music

For electronic media, music is largely in the digital domain, and the searchability of it is rapidly improving. The biggest bottleneck is in trying to categorize and rationalize what is largely a subjective experience. I either like music or I don’t. How do you make that searchable? Well, interestingly, Pandora’s Music Genome Project is trying to do just that. Since 2000, it has analyzed hundreds of thousands of songs based on over 400 attributes or “genes” (hence the Genome moniker) which include melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumentation, singing styles, lyrics and arrangements, to name just a few. It’s a large-scale attempt to make music searchable by something other than genre, artist or title, which is far too limiting for most of us. The Pandora interface, in its attempt to be intuitive, doesn’t allow for power searching, but it’s still a quantum leap forward in allowing us to help define our likes and dislikes in the musical universe.

What You See is What You Search

If you take this same approach to video entertainment, there is a much more complex, and therefore richer, content depository to mine. Think of the universe of movies, TV shows and documentaries that exists, each loaded with dialogue, topicality, visuals and styles. As complex as music can be, video explodes the content to be categorized and analyzed in a dozen different directions. It provides a huge indexing challenge, but therein lies the promise and profitability. And it appears to be a challenge that Google is ready to take on. Of course, we haven’t even touched on aspects like consumer-generated video content (the YouTubes of the world, which seems to be the latest overladen bandwagon) and social tagging.

We’ve Only Just Begun…

But that’s the globally visible world, the tip of an immensely large iceberg. There is very little in our physical world now that isn’t digitized somewhere. There is a virtual mirror for almost every physical presence. Store inventories exist in the digital domain, and have for some time. Aggregating those inventories and making them searchable turns the entire world into your personal shopping mall. We leave GPS trails as we move from point A to B. Our vehicles churn out detailed performance summaries via the onboard computer as we do so. Mobile computing makes the very stuff of our personal lives; our thoughts, our activities, our appointments, our contacts, all digital and indexable. At work and at school, we all produce content on a daily basis. My daughters are content producers each time they do homework, and increasingly, that work is in bits and bytes.

As the barriers disappear between our hard drive and the Net (the subject of David’s column) all this content theoretically can enter the public domain and be searchable. Increasingly, the question we ask ourselves is “where do I draw the line between my private and my online world?” File sharing becomes a substantially bigger deal.

Brain Melting Questions

Fellow blogger Mitch Joel calls these kind of questions “brain melters.” I like that. It captures the mind-numbing aspects of this stuff. Our electronic footprint is now bigger, and in some ways more real, than our physical one. There is this vast binary universe out there, terabyte after terabyte of data that grows each and every second, capturing the essence of who we are and what we do. And the sole door to that world, the channel we all must pass through to gain entry, is search. In the act of searching, we connect to that universe.

Cast the search question in that light. Realize that we have yet to scratch the vast potential of this fundamental glue that holds the Internet together and bonds us to it. Imagine owning the solitary access point to everything!

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are jockeying for position to do just that. It should excite the hell out of their respective shareholders, but it should scare the hell out of us. Do we really want this much power in the hands of so few?

These are big questions, and I’d love to get your viewpoint. Leave your thoughts on the Search Insider blog, or drop me an email at gord@enquiro.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s