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Tuesday, September 16, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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Web search at a crossroads, and relevance is the quest

By CLAIRE CAIN MILLER

New York Times

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Say you need a latte. You might pull out your phone, open the Yelp app and search for a nearby cafe. If instead you want to buy an espresso machine, you will most likely tap Amazon.com.

Either way, Google lost a customer.

Google remains the undisputed king of search, with about two-thirds of the market. But the nature of search is changing, especially as more people search for what they want to buy, eat or learn on their mobile devices. This has put the $22 billion search industry, perhaps the most lucrative and influential of online businesses, at its most significant crossroad since its invention.

No longer do consumers want to search the Web like the index of a book — finding links at which a particular keyword appears. They expect new kinds of customized search, like on topical sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor or Amazon, which are chipping away at Google's hold. Google and its competitors are trying to develop the knowledge and comprehension to answer specific queries, not just point users in the right direction.

"What people want is, ‘You ask a very simple question and you get a very simple answer,"' said Oren Etzioni, a professor at the University of Washington who has co-founded companies for shopping and flight search. "We don't want the 10 blue links on that small screen. We want to know the closest sushi place, make a reservation and be on our way."

People are overwhelmed at how crowded the Internet has become — Google says there are 30 trillion Web addresses, up from 1 trillion five years ago — and expect their computers and phones to be smarter and do more for them. Many of the new efforts are services that people don't even think of as search engines.

Amazon, for example, has a larger share than Google of shopping searches, the most lucrative kind because people are in the mood to buy something. On sites like Pinterest and Polyvore, users have curated their favorite things from around the Web to produce results when you search for, say, "lace dress."

On smartphones, people skip Google and go directly to apps, like Kayak or Weather Underground. Other apps send people information, like traffic or flight delays, before they even ask for it.

People use YouTube to search for things like how to tie a bow tie, Siri to search on their iPhones, online maps to find local places and Facebook to find things their friends have liked.

And services liked LinkedIn Influencers and Quora are trying to be different kinds of search engines — places to find high-quality, expert content and avoid weeding through everything else on the Web. On Quora, questions like "What was it like to work for Steve Jobs?" get answered by people with firsthand knowledge, something Google cannot provide.

"There is a lot of pressure on search engines to deliver more customized, more relevant results," said Shar VanBoskirk, an analyst at Forrester. "Users don't need links to Web pages. We need answers, solutions, whatever intel we were searching for."

But Google remains the guy to beat, even as alternative search sites become popular. "They're the specialty store you're going into here and there," said Danny Sullivan, an editor of Search Engine Land, a blog, "but they're not your grocery store."

Yet the promise of search is big enough that even though Microsoft loses billions of dollars a year on Bing and has failed to make a dent in Google's market share, it keeps at it. Microsoft — which in February had 17 percent of the market, and 26 percent including the searches it powered for Yahoo — has said it views search as essential to its other products, from the Xbox to phones. And there is still a lot of money to be made as No. 2.

"You have millions of people a day saying exactly what they want and if you're an advertiser, it's a beautiful vehicle," Sullivan said.

EMarketer estimates that Google earns about three-quarters of search ad spending. Search engines bring companies troves of data and a measure of control as Internet users' entry point to the digital world.

There are signs that people's search behaviors are changing, with consequences for these companies.

Searches on traditional services, dominated by Google, declined 3 percent in the second half of last year after rising for years, according to comScore, and the number of searches per searcher declined 7 percent. In contrast, searches on topical sites, known as vertical search engines, climbed 8 percent.

While traditional searches increased again this year, other data reflects the threat to Google.

In the first quarter, spending on search ads fell 1 percent, a significant slowdown for Google, according to IgnitionOne, a digital marketing company. Last year, Google lost market share in search ads for the first time, according to eMarketer, falling to 72.8 percent from 74 percent.

This year, ad spending on traditional search engines is expected to grow more slowly than overall online ad spending, a reversal. Its growth significantly outpaced that of online ad spending until last year, eMarketer said.

Google is not watching from the sidelines. It is making more changes to its search offerings and at a faster pace than it has in years.

Larry Page, its co-founder and chief executive, renamed the search division "knowledge." Google's mission, organizing the world's information, was too narrow. Now he wanted people to learn from Google.

Google now shows answers instead of just links if you search something like "March Madness," "weather" or even "my flight," in which case it can pull flight information from users' Gmail accounts.

The company's biggest step happened last year, when it introduced the knowledge graph. While search generally matches keywords to websites, the knowledge graph uses semantic search, which understands the meanings of and connections among people, places and things.

A typical search engine, for instance, responds to a search for "Diana" by showing Web pages on which that word appears, from Wikipedia entries on the goddess of the hunt and the Princess of Wales to an engagement ring company.

But a more knowledgeable, humanlike search engine could know that you were looking for your roommate Diana's online profile, or that you were also interested in Kate Middleton.

"What Google is beginning to do is share some of the knowledge in the world that humans have in their minds," said Ben Gomes, a Google fellow, "so users can begin to communicate with Google in a way that's much more natural to their thinking."

Google calls these small steps that show where it is headed.

In the future, Google could answer more complicated questions, Gomes said, like "How far is it from here to the Eiffel Tower?" and "Where could I go to a concert in warm weather next year?"

Despite the advances of alternative search services, online habits are just as hard to break as real-world ones, especially when they are useful, said Andrew Lipsman, vice president of industry analysis at comScore.

"Most people have this very strong Google habit," he said. "I go there every day and it gives me information I want, so it's a self-reinforcing cycle. Not anyone can come in and just do those things."





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