Search Engine Results: 2010 – Interview with Danny Sullivan

Danny-SullivanHere’s another in the series of the Search:2010 transcripts, this one of my chat with Search Engine Land Editor Danny Sullivan:

Gord: The big question that I’m asking is how much change are we going to see on the search engine results page over the next three years.  What impact are things like universal search and personalization and some of the other things we’re seeing come out, how much of that is going to impact the actual interface the user is going to see.  Maybe let’s just start there.

Danny: I love the whole series to begin with because then I thought, Gosh, I never really sat down and tried to plot out how I would do it, and I wish I had had the time to do that before we talked (laughs).  But it would be nice to have a contest or something for the people who are in the space to say I think this is the way we should do it or where it should go.
But the thing at the top of my head that I expect or I assume that we’re going to get is… I think they’re going to get a lot more intelligent at giving you more from a particular database when they know you’re doing a specific a kind of search.  It’s not necessarily an interface change, but then again it is.  This is the thing I talked about when I was saying about when the London Car Bombing attempts happened, and I’m searching for “London Bombings”.  When you see a spike in certain words you ought to know that there’s a reason behind that spike.  It’s going to be news driven probably, so why are you giving me 10 search results? Why don’t you give me 10 news results?  And saying I’ve also got stuff from across the web, or I’ve got other things that are showing up in that regard.  And that hasn’t changed.  I‘d like to see them get that.   I’d like to see them figure out some intelligent manner to maybe get to that point.  Part of what could come along with that too is that as we start displaying more vertical results the search interface itself could change.  So I think the most dramatic change in how we present search results, really, has come off of local.  And people go “wow, these maps are really cool!” Well of course they’re really cool, they’re presenting information on a map which makes sense when we’re talking about local information.  You want things displayed in that kind of manner.  It doesn’t make sense to take all web search results and put them on a map. You could do it, but it doesn’t communicate additional information for you that’s probably irrelevant and that needs to be presented in a visual manner.  If you think about the other kinds of search that you tend to do, Blog search for instance, it may be that there’s going to be a more chronological display. We saw them do with news archive where they would do a search and they would tell you this happened within these years at this time.  Right now when I do a Google blog search, by default it shows me ‘most relevant’.  But sometimes I want to know what the most recent thing is, and what’s the most recent thing that’s also the most relevant thing right? So perhaps when I do a Search, a Google blog search, I can see something running down the left hand side that says “last hour” and within the last hour you show me the most relevant things in the last hour, the last 4 hours, and then the last day.  And you could present it that way, almost sort of a timeline metaphor. I’m sure there are probably things you could do with shading and other stuff to go along with that.  Image search…Live has done some interesting things now where they’ve made it much less textual, and much more stuff that you’re hovering over, that you can interact with it in that regard.  An I don’t know, it might be that with book search and those other kinds of things that there’ll be other kinds of metaphors that come into place that you can do when you know you are going to present most of the information just from those sorts of resources.  With Video search… I think we’ve already seen a lot of the thing with video search is just giving you the display and being able to play the videos directly.  Rather than having to leave the site because it just doesn’t make sense to have to leave the site in that regard.

Gord: When I was talking to Marissa, she saw a lot more mash ups with search functionality, and you talked about having maps and that with local search making sense, but its almost like you take the search functionality and you layer that over different types of interfaces that make sense, given the type of information your interacting with.

Danny: Right.

Gord: One thing I talked about with a few different people is ‘how much functionality do you put in the hands of the user?’ how much needs to be transparent? How hard are we willing to work with a page of search results?

Danny: By default, not a lot, you know if you’re just doing a general search, I don’t think that putting a whole lot of functionality is going to help you. You could put a lot of options there but historically we haven’t seen people use those things, and I think that’s because they just want to do their searches. They want you to just naturally get the right kind of information that’s there and a lot of the time if they give you that direct answer you don’t need to do a lot of manipulation.  It’s a different thing I think when you get into some very vertical, very task orientated kinds of searches, where you’re saying, ‘I don’t just need the quick answer, I don’t just need to browse and see all the things that are out there, but actually, I’m trying to drill down on this subject in a particular way’.  And local tends to be a great example. ‘Now you’ve given me all the results that match the zip code, but really I would like to narrow it down into a neighborhood, so how can I do that?’  Or a shopping search.  ‘I have a lot of results but now I want to buy something, so now I need to know who has it in inventory? Now I really need to know who has it cheapest? And I need to know who’s the most trusted merchant?’ Then I think the searcher is going to be willing to do more work on the search and make use of more of the options that you give to them.

Gord: Like you say, if you’re putting users directly into an experience where they are closer to the information that they were looking for, there’s probably a greater likelihood that they’re willing to meet you half way, by doing a little extra work to refine that if you give them tools that are appropriate to the types of results they are seeing.  So if it’s shopping search, filtering that by price, or by brand.  That’s common functionality with a shopping search engine and maybe we’ll see that get in to some of the other verticals. But I guess the big question is, in the next three years are the major engines going to gain enough confidence that they’ll be providing a deeper vertical experience as the default, rather than as an invisible tab or a visible tab.

Danny: I still tend to think that the way that they are going to give a deeper vertical experience is the visible tab idea, which is you know, that you are not going to be overtly asked to do it, it is just going to do it for you, and then give you options to get out of it, if it was the wrong choice. So, both Ask, and Google, which are getting all the attention right now, for universal search, you know, blended search if you wanna find a generic term for it that, doesn’t favor one service over the other.  The other term is federated search and I’ve always hated that because it always felt like something from that, you know, came out of the Star Trek Enterprise (laugh). No, I want Klingon search! (laugh) I think that in both of those cases you do the search and the default still is web.  And Ask will say, over here on the side we have some other results. Yes, universal search is inserting an item here or an item there but in most of the cases it still looks like web search, right? They still, really feel like OneBoxes. I haven’t had a universal search happen to me yet that I’ve come along and I’ve thought ‘that really was something I couldn’t have got just from searching the web’ except when I’ve gotten a map.  That’s come in when they’ve shown the map, and that is that kind of dramatic change, and I think at some point they will get to that point, that kind of dramatic change where you just search for “plumbers” and a zip code.  I’m so confident of it I’m just going to give you Google local. I’m not just going to insert a map and give you 7 more web listings that are down there. I’m going to give you a whole bunch of listings and I’m going to change the whole interface on you and if you’re going ‘well, this isn’t what I want’, then I’m going to be able to give you some options if you want to escape out of it.  I like what Ask does, in the sense that it’s easy to escape out of that thing because you just look off to the side and there’s web search over here, there’s other stuff over there.  I think it’s harder for Google to do that when they try to blend it all together. The difficulty remains as to whether people will actually notice that stuff off to the side, and make use of it.

Gord: That was actually something that Jacob Nielsen brought up. He said the whole paradigm of the linear scan down the page is such a dominant user behavior, that we’ve got so used to, you know engines like Ask can experiment with a different layout where they’re going two dimensional, but will the users be able to scan that efficiently?

Danny: I’ve been using this Boeing versus Airbus analogy when I’m trying to explain to people the differences between what Google is doing and what Ask is doing.  Boeing is going, ‘Well, we’ll build small fast energy-efficient jets’ and Airbus is saying ‘We’ll build big huge jets, and we’ll move more people so you’ll be able to do less flights’.  And when I look at the blended search, Google’s approach is, well, we’ve got to stay linear, we’ve got to keep it all in there. That’s where people are expecting the stuff and so we’re going to go that way.  Ask’s approach is we’re going to be putting it all over the place on the page and we’ve got this split, really nice interface.  And I agree with them. And of course Walt Mossberg wrote that review where he said ‘oh they’re so much nicer, they look so much cleaner’, and that’s great, except that he’s a sophisticated person, I’m a sophisticated person, you’re a sophisticated person, we search all the time.  We look at that sort of stuff. A typical person might just ignore it; it might continue to be eye candy that they don’t even notice. And that is the big huge gamble that is going on between these two sorts of players and then, yet again, it might not be a gamble because when you talk to Jim Lanzone, he says ‘My testing tells me this is what our people do’. Well, his people might be different from the Google people. Google has got a lot more new people that come over there that are like, ‘I just want to do a search, show me some things, where’s the text links? I’m done’. So I tend to look perhaps more kindly on what Google is doing, than some people who try to measure them up against Ask because I understand that they deal with a lot more people than Ask, and they have to be much more conservative than what Ask is doing.  And I think that what’s going to happen is those two are going to approach closer together.  The advantage, of course, Jim has over at Ask, is that he doesn’t have to put ads in that column so he’s got a whole column he can make use of, and it is useful, and it is a nice sort of place to tuck it in there. If you really want to talk about search interfaces, what will be really fun to envision is what happens when Ajax starts coming along and doing other things. Can I start putting the sponsored search results where they are hovering above other results? Is there other issues that come with that?  There may be some confusion as to why I’m getting this and why I’m getting that. Can I pop up a map as I hover over a result? I could deliver you a standard set of search results and I can also deliver you local results on top of a particular type of picture.  If I move my mouse along it, I could show you a preview of what you get in local and you might go “Oh wow, there’s a whole map there”. I want to jump off in that direction.  That would be really fun to see that type of stuff come along there, but I’m just not seeing anything come out of it.  What we typically have had when people have played with the interface is, these really WYSIWYG things like, ‘well we’ll fly you though the results, or we’ll group them’.  None of which is really something that you’d need, that added to the choices, “do I want to go vertical, do I not want to go vertical?”

Gord: When we start talking about the fact that the search results page could be a lot more dynamic and interactive, of course the big question is what does that do for monetization of the page?  One of the things that Jakob (Nielsen) talked about was banner blindness.  Do people start cutting out sections of the page?  We talked a little about that.  How do you make sure that the advertising doesn’t get lost on the page when there’s just a lot more visual information in there to assimilate?

Danny: Well I think a variety of things that are going to start happening there.  For example, Google doesn’t do paid inclusion, right, but Google has partnerships with YouTube and they have these channels, and they’re going to be sharing revenue from these channels with other people. So when they start including that stuff up, perhaps they are getting paid off of that.  They didn’t pay to put it in the index but, because they are better able to promote their video channels, more people are going over there, and they’re making money off of that as a destination.  So in some ways, they can afford to have their video results start becoming more relevant because they don’t have to worry about if you didn’t click on the ad from the initial search result, they sort of lost you.  In terms of how the other ads might go, I guess the concern might be if the natural results are getting better and better why would anyone click on the ads anyway?  Maybe people will reassess the paid results and some people will come through and say that paid search results are a form of search data base as well.  So we’re going to call them classifieds or we’re going to call them ads, we’re going to move them right into the linear display.  You know there’ll be issues, because at least in the US, you have the FCC guidelines that say that you should really keep them segregated.  So if you don’t highlight them or blend them in some way, you might run into some regulatory problems.  But then again, maybe those rules might start to change as the search innovation starts to change, and go with it from there.  I don’t know, the search engines might come up with other things.  You know we’re getting toolbars that are appearing more on all of our things. Google might start thinking, ‘Well, let’s put ads back onto that toolbar’.  We used to have those sorts of things, and everyone seems to catch on, but they might come back, and that might be another way that some of the players, especially somebody like Google, might make money beyond just putting the ad on the search result page.

Gord: In the next three years, are we going to get to the point where search starts to become less of a destination activity like the way it is now, and the functionality  sits underneath more of Web 2.0 or semantic web or whatever you want to call it.  It almost becomes a mash up of functionality that underlies other types of sites. Are we going to stop going to a Google or a Yahoo as much to launch a distinct search as we do now?

Danny: You know people have been saying that for at least 3 or 4 years now, especially with Microsoft. ‘Oh you’re not even going to go there, you’re going to do it from your desktop.’  Vista, which I have yet to actually use.  I’ve got the laptop and I’m about to start playing with it! Apparently, it’s supposed to be even more integrated than it was with XP.  But I still tend to think, you know what? We do stuff in our browsers.  I know widgets are growing and I know there’s more stuff that’s just drawing stuff into your computer as well, but we still tend to do stuff in our browser.  I still see search as something where I’m going to go to a search engine and do the search.  With the exception of toolbars. I think we’re going to do a lot more searching through toolbars.  Tool bars are everywhere; it’s really rare for me to start a search where I’m actually not doing it from the toolbar.  I just have a toolbar that sits up there, and I don’t need to be at the search engine itself.  But I still want the results displayed in my browser.  Because I think most of the stuff I’m going to have to deal with is going to be in my browser as well.  So it doesn’t really help to be able to search from Microsoft Word, right?  Because I don’t want all these sites in a little window within Word. I’m probably going to have to read what they say, so I’m probably going to have to go there.  I think that will change though if I have a media player, then I think it makes much more sense for me, and you can already do this with some media players, where you can do searches, and have the results flow back in.  iTunes is a classic example. iTunes is basically a music search engine.  Sure, it’s limited to the music and the podcasts that are within iTunes, but it doesn’t really make any sense for me to go to the Apple website. Although, interestingly, here’s an example where Apple is just a terrible failure.  They’ve got all this stuff out there, they’ve got stuff that perhaps you might be interested in even if you don’t use their software and there’s just no way to get to it on the web.  The last time I looked you really had to do the searches in iTunes.  So they’re missing out on being a destination for those people who say ‘I’m not going to use iTunes’  or ‘I don’t have iTunes’ or ‘I’m on a different version.’ I don’t know if you’ve downloaded it recently but it takes forever and it’s just a pain.

Gord: I think that covers off the main questions I wanted to cover off in this.  Is there anything else as far as search in the next three years that you wanted to comment on?

Danny: You know, it’s hard because if you’d asked me that three years ago, would I have told you, ‘watch for the growth of verticals and watch for the growth of blended search’, (laughs) right?  I’ve been thinking really hard because, I’m like, ‘Gosh, now what am I going to talk about because they’re doing both of those things’. I think personalized search is going to continue to get strong.  I do think that Google is onto something with their personalized search results.  I don’t think that they’re going to cause you to be in an Amazon situation where you’re continuing to be recommended stuff you’re no longer interested in.  I think that people are misunderstanding how sophisticated it can be.  I think that the next big trend is that, ironically from what I just said to you, search is going to start jumping into devices.  And everything is going to have a search box.  But it will be appropriate.  My iPod itself will have a search capability within it.  And the iPhone, to some degree, maybe is going to be that look at how it’s happening already. But I’ll be able to search, access, and get information appropriate to that device within it.  Windows Media Center, when I first got that in 2005, I said, this is amazing, because it’s basically got TV search built into it.  I do the search and then of course, it allows me to subscribe to the program, and records the program, and knows when the next ones are coming up.  And it makes so much more sense for that search to be in that device than it did for me to have it elsewhere.  I use it all the time, when I want to know when a programs on, I don’t have to find where the TV listings are on the web, I just walk over to my computer and do a search from within the Media Center player.  So I think we’re going to have many more devices that are internet enabled, and there’s going to be reasons why you want to do searches with them, to find stuff for them in particular.  That’s going to be the new future of search and search growth will come into it.  And in terms of what that means to the search marketer, I think it’s going to be crucial to understand that these are going to be new growth areas, because those searches when they start are going to be fairly rudimentary. It’s going to be back in the days of, OK, they’re probably going to be driven off of meta data, so you got to make sure you have your title, and your description and making sure the item that your searching for is relevant.

Gord: So obviously all that leads itself to the question of mobile search, and will mobile search be more useful by 2010?

Danny: Sure, but it’s going to be more useful because it’s not going to be mobile search.  It’s just the device is going to catch up and be more desktop-like.  I have a Windows mobile phone at the moment, and I have downloaded some of the applets like Live Search and Google Maps, and those can be handy for me to use, but for the most part, if I want to do a search, I fire up the web browser, I look for what I’m looking for, the screen is fairly large, and I can see what I wanted to find.  And I think that you’re going to find that the devices are going to continue to be small and yet gain larger screens, and have the ability for you to better do direct input. So if you want to do search, you can do a search. It’s not like you’re going to need to have to have something that’s designed for the mobile device that only shows mobile pages.  I think that’s going to change.  You’re going to have some mobile devices that are specifically not going to be able to do that and those people in the end are going to find that no one is going to be trying to support you.

Gord: Thanks Danny.

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