Microsoft and Experts Agree: Search is Evolving Beyond Links

9/9/12 | 8:11:00 PM

Analyst: Google and Microsoft “In an Arms Race...To Make Search More Intelligent”

In the past few months, Microsoft and its anti-Google organization FairSearch have criticized Google for including maps, shopping results, and videos in search results -- even if those are the best answer for users. But over the past several days, Microsoft and Yahoo engineers and independent experts have agreed that search has been evolving from just a tool for finding websites, into providing consumers with better answers.

Search Engines Already Providing Richer Answers on Search Pages
“Google and Microsoft’s Bing are able to answer some specific searches -- such as “Mariners score” -- with relevant information on the results page. You can search for “Seattle weather” and and immediately get a forecast, without navigating to someplace like [Computer scientists Oren] Etzioni envisions a world -- just three to five years from now -- in which search engines scour the Internet based not on keywords, but on extracted information.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 3, 2011)

Microsoft’s Head of Search: Criticizes Search Engines for Being “Still a Web Site Finder”
Microsoft’s president of the Online Services Unit, Qi Lu, told the New York Times that search engines are evolving beyond “ten blue links” into providing richer types of answers for users -- whether that answer is flight results, a video, a map, shopping results, or even a seating chart:

“In short, Mr. Lu describes a vision of a search engine that is part intelligent software assistant and part mind reader. ‘Search is still essentially a Web site finder.’ Mr. Lu says. ‘It’s all nouns. But the future of search is verbs -- computationally discerning user intent to give them the knowledge to complete tasks.’”

“In Bing, the most visible evidence of the decision-engine concept is the ability to aggregate and present specific kinds of information in a search result. Microsoft has invested in travel services, for example. Type “flights to San Francisco” into Bing, and below a few blue-shaded links to ads is a Bing Travel flight database.”

Microsoft Search Executives: Searchers “Want to Complete Tasks Within Search,” Rather Than Be Sent to Websites
In an interview with PaidContent, Bing’s search director, Stefan Weitz, said:

“When they do a standard search, people end up using five to 10 different resources in the completion of these tasks. But, according to our research, 58 percent of heavy users want to complete tasks inside the search engine. That’s a big jump from a few years previously. Google found the same thing recently. So we’re taking Bing to a place you can actually accomplish things and do things, rather than send you off to those sites.”

Qi Lu agreed with this sentiment at Microsoft’s recent Financial Analyst Meeting:

Search is a means to an end. We want our product to go substantially beyond just finding information, go all the way to help the user make decisions and complete tasks.”

Microsoft’s Head of Search: Bing “Is Now a Credible Alternative to Consumers, to Advertisers”
At the same Financial Analyst Meeting, Lu also expressed “a high degree of confidence” that the Bing is very competitive:

“We've been materializing the benefits of the strategic goals for this partnership [with Yahoo], particularly in search quality. Because when you combine the search tasks together... our product gets better and better, benefits both companies, and it benefits consumers, because we, the combined traffic up 30 percent, almost 30 percent United States, is now a credible alternative to consumers, to advertisers.”

“We can say our search quality at the baseline is on par with our competitors. And even more importantly, the pace of improvement, the speed at which we were improving our quality is faster against our competitions... we do have confidence, a high degree of confidence that we'll be very, very competitive in our product quality, and be able to sustain and accelerate the pace of innovation.”

“So, if we add these things together, take a recap for the last 27-plus months, we come from a long way. We started the journey when we were a distant third in a three-way race. We had less than 7 percent market share. Now our platform is truly a credible alternative in the United States, and we have a quality product, a good brand.”

Yahoo’s Senior Vice President of Search Products: “Answers, Not Links”
Shashi Seth, Yahoo’s senior vice president for search products, told Search Engine Watch that “users are no longer satisfied with links on a page”:

“Yahoo’s next generation of search is defined as “answers, not links.” This means when users ask a question, instead of giving 10 blue links, the engine should be able to provide an exact answer for many of those questions.... Increasingly, [users] demand engines to be able to extract information and provide answers with clarity and quickness through information retrieval usually within seconds.”

Experts: This is Where Search is Headed
Experts agree that Google and Microsoft are competing over who can provide better answers and help users complete tasks:

Esther Dyson, Technology Analyst
“There is so little context in current search, and what Microsoft is trying to do is present users with context and structure, more a map of the world of information instead of just ranking it, especially in specific subject areas like travel and health. Microsoft is trying to beat Google at this different game.” (New York Times, July 30, 2011)

Oren Etzioni, Computer Science Professor, University of Washington
"Instead of poring over long lists of documents that contain requested keywords, users need direct answers to their questions."(Nature, August 2011)

“Both these companies are making important steps to make search more intelligent. It’s an arms race.” (New York Times, July 30, 2011)

Erick Schonfeld, Editor, TechCrunch
The Senators kept trying to define Google and search in 2004 terms of ten blue links that take consumers away from Google. But search is very different today. Increasingly, Google is trying to give you the right answer in the results themselves. And you know who else does exactly the same thing? Bing. Telling Google that it needs to go back to the 2004 version of itself while Bing and others can keep experimenting with new ways to deliver information to consumers would just hamper innovation in search.” (TechCrunch, September 25, 2011)