All-Empowering Search.

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2007
 
All-Empowering Search.
"Our two primal urges-to know the world and have the world know us-will flower as never before." That's Quentin Hardy, Silicon Valley bureau chief of Forbes magazine. As a prediction for the coming state of the Web, we must agree.

Information is increasing at a pace we as a race just cannot handle. The search engines are here to help. They will be there, in better avatars, as the nature of content changes-witness how non-textual information is burgeoning. Think of image search, audio search, video search: our current text-box-entry interface is quite like the DOS prompt. So visualise, with all the imagination you can muster, what would happen if a Windows or Mac-like evolution were to happen-hum a tune and get your song. Upload an image and get similar ones, Riya-style. (www.riya.com; "Find an item you like and Like.com will show you results that are visually similar.") Speak out a video description and get your results…

Dial a number, speak out your search terms,
wait a while, click a link, and there you
go-your search results

Picking up on that last, few know about Google Voice Search-it's been here for a year or so! You dial a number, speak out your search terms, wait a while, click a link, and there you go-your search results. Since there's only one number to call, the system's capacity is very limited-but this underlines the idea that in the future, we won't necessarily be sitting at our Desktops and typing out queries. On the train, someone says, "So who won that match?" Out comes the handset, you say out "Australia England match," and-the default might be "I'm feeling lucky"-you just see the headline you need to.

Jeremy Zawodny, "Technical Yahoo!", said a while ago about the future of search: "Our local search is really just the beginning. (We need to) discern intent. When you search for a particular set of keywords, what's your goal? Are you doing research? Looking to buy something? Trying to find a long lost friend? As search engines begin to understand our goals and motivations, they'll be able to custom tailor the results…"
Yahoo!'s mysearch.yahoo.com is something like Google Personalized Search (more on that later), and the select-countries-only local.yahoo.com and its variants are indeed beginnings in the direction of more relevant results. As for intent, it gets closer to the core of the issue, and is quite an Artificial Intelligence (AI) problem; a stop-gap solution could be to explicitly ask the searcher, "What are you searching for?" followed by a list of possibilities as above. Well, not "long-lost friend," but something like "people," "places," "research," "Web entertainment," and so on.

Disambiguation is as close to "intent" as we've gotten. We recall that about a year ago, Google began its-what's it called now-"Refine results for:" thing. So you type in a drug name, and you get a list of more specific searches to choose from: "Drug uses," "Side effects," and many more. The kind of searches this is done for is only a few-like for drugs, like for city names. But we see this number increasing. Think of Wikipedia: when you type in a search word that is used in two or more contexts-like "Opera"-you come to a disambiguation page. How long before MSN, Yahoo!, and Google start off with their versions of context disambiguation?

"As Google's Desktop applications land on more andmore hard drives, I wouldn't be surprised if we sawGoogle get into the P2P space"–Stephen Bryant, Ziff-Davis

As far as the raw algorithms go, they're getting better in small, important steps. Note the "NEAR" operator we used in AltaVista: "NEAR" is the default in Google, as you've doubtless noticed. But the urgent need is better Machine Learning, better AI. We don't see that happening anytime in the near future. But a lot can be done with what's already been developed: Riya (though still abysmal in terms of volume of results) doesn't depend on tags. That's one of the mantras for search of the future: don't depend on tags. Auto-tag instead. Use pattern recognition, face recognition.

From AI to Natural Intelligence: Yahoo! bought up http://del.icio.us/ in part to include bookmarked sites as a ranking criterion in search results. And then, what about Digg? Will more Diggs mean higher rankings? In short, search engines actively using already-done human activity could very well happen.

Talking about human activity, people just don't tag things: how many times have you provided a proper summary for your just-done Word document? How long ago did you give a picture a meaningful name? We're predicting that the awareness of the need for proper tagging-as in a collective awareness of the Internet community-will increase, which will, in turn, increase search relevancy.

Which brings us to Google Base: did you know there's base.google.com? At that page, you sign in, and just upload content. Any content. You need to tag it first. People will then be able to find your stuff. Yes, content itself is getting more user-driven, but that's a topic for another tale…

Thinking about Google Base, it struck us: what about a P2P Google? A Google that searched for stuff all over willing people's computers? Imagine our dismay when we Googled "P2P Google" and discovered someone had beaten us to the idea! The culprit was Ziff-Davis' Stephen Bryant, in December 2005: "And as Google's Desktop applications land on more and more hard drives, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw Google get into the P2P space. Imagine searching, not only the Web, but also the information that other people make public on their hard drives."

No talk of search can skip out on advertising. Some of you use AdBlock in Firefox. Some of us use a script that even blocks Google ads. Now, Milind Mody, CEO of eBrandz, a leading Indian SEO, has this to say: "If Google realises a lot of people are blocking their ads, they will detect usage of such scripts and ban those IPs from getting search results." Then, Mody says, there will likely be an increased tendency to highlight paid search results. He also sees search engine spam reducing, with Google and others now taking longer to rank a site after it's been indexed. In sum, expect a cleaner Google.

Personalised Search is what will change the face of our favourite Internet activity the most. We don't understand why more people don't actually use the Personalisation feature in Google. If you use it, you'll get more relevant results in future searches. Don't want the Internet to know what you've been searching for? Why, what really is your concern that some server somewhere in faraway California knows what you do online? Sun's Scott McNealy said it the way it is: "You already have zero privacy. Get over it."

Have we been unfair in mostly talking Google all this while? Well, are you being unfair when you say you just Xeroxed a document?
Google wants to index "all the world's information" and make it available, as you know. Now CEO Eric Schmidt has said, on record, about this: "It is important that we not be stopped."

Yes, it's important. We want. Please give. What else can we say?

For My Eyes Only

The Web will eventually be what you want it to be-yours. You'll see a customised version served just for you

 

The problem: too much information. The answer: personalisation. We're envisioning a Web where, once you sign in to your Desktop or mobile device, you're recognised for what you are as an online entity. And you get only what you need, what you want, what you like. Like for downloads: suppose you're only looking for freeware-why should the Web show you non-freeware? You'll stop seeing unnecessary ads like "check your credit score" (which applies only to Americans)-and those much-hated ads for $10 broadband! Already, sites are recognising your IP, and are sending out targeted ads-and we're talking targeted content, too.

We remember a concept of long ago, called OneName, where you put in all your details, and OneName-supporting sites would recognise you. That was in 1999, and it goes to show that "recognising" one all over the Web is hardly a tough proposition.

Personalised newsletters are a simple implementation of the "learning about you" concept: Findory.com, for example, will send you a news e-mail each day containing only news you're likely to read, based on what you read in the past.

In the future, each time you browse, you'll be writing to the Web-without your explicitknowledge

Think sites storing your information, sharing your information, so as to display only your stuff. This already happens on sites like Amazon: you see recommendations based on past purchases, and even based on what you browsed for the last time you visited. Now what about even personal Web sites and blogs caching your preferences?

Now head to http://tinyurl.com/244he3, and what you'll see is iGoogle-where you personalise pages for others. Examples: "You love your pics. So will your loved ones. Share a series of your favorite photos with friends and family." "Personal List: With this gadget you can publish your own personal "Top Ten" or simply send a set of chores to your sweetie."

These things you send to your sweetie (or anyone else), and his or her Google page gets personalised. Then, consider that communities might make pages for themselves. Think "weGoogle"-your own community creating your page for you.

Now take a look at GoogleAlert (not affiliated with Google), at www.googlealert.com. The site "Tracks Your interests on the Web." "You can use Google Alert to keep track of anything, including information regarding yourself, your work, or your interests."

The idea? We realised the possibility and potential of an app that crawls the Web as you browse, picking up your interactions, and brings up a new "Default Page" for you after it's gathered enough. If it did this constantly, what you'd have is your Personalised Internet always on your browser. Think of it this way: Web 2.0 is sometimes called the read-write Web. What we're saying here is that in the future, each time you browse, you'll be writing to the Web-without your explicit knowledge-and the next time you read it, it'll be different; it'll be closer to what you want.

We tried to see if someone was actually working in that direction. Turns out lots of people are. The idea is "Reconnaissance Agents": here's from http://tinyurl.com/2ep5dy. "Every click on a Web link is a leap of faith. Until you actually see what is behind the link, you don't know whether it will lead to the reward of another interesting page, or to the disappointment of a 'junk' page. But what if you had an assistant that was always looking ahead of you-clicking on the Web links and checking out the page behind the link before you got to it? An assistant that, like a good secretary, had a good idea of what you might like. The assistant could warn you if the page was irrelevant or alert you if that link or some other link particularly merited your attention. (Such agents) will soon become as common as search engines… They are called reconnaissance agents."

Henry Lieberman of MIT's Media Laboratory speaks of Letizia, "an agent that assists Web browsing." As you use a regular browser, the agent tracks your behaviour (the write-to-the-Web we were talking about) and tries to divine what you might like to look at by exploring links from the current link-looking at many links simultaneously, all by itself.

What we'll need to track is whether reconnaissance agents do become as popular as search engines, as Lieberman claims… if and when they do, and if sites exchange information about you like we said, we'll be well on our way to each of us seeing an iWeb.

In It All, Together

Social networking is a phenomenon, nothing short of that. What could it possibly evolve into?

 

It is believed in some circles that social networking will surpass porn as the most-done activity on the Web. It has also been suggested that Yahoo! and other portals may have to eventually team with MySpace and other similar sites to retain mindshare. The numbers are important: registered Facebook users went from about 6 million in January 2006 to about 13 million in January 2007. Then make that 15 million in March! Then, MySpace membership numbers are growing by about 5 million a month. Sure, many of these accounts are inactive, but the figures are large.

We're talking perhaps the biggest online phenomenon we've seen in many years-the whole "community" thing. Communities might direct the content people access... and traditional media will be the weaker for it. A near-perfect example is Digg: it's almost reached search engine status in some areas. Need technology news? Head to Digg, and sort by Diggs. Less authority, more democracy.

Content itself will be increasingly created socially-think more blogs putting up "contribute" buttons. The comments on boards and forums are significant… comments sometimes span pages, and might be even more insightful than the original article.

We're also seeing niche communities, like those at No.1 Industries, a company that has created targeted social networking sites. No.1 Artist, for example, focuses on providing a social network for artists so they can interact with other artists and other such things. It's just better for an artist to be in such a community than, for example, MySpace. Expect to see more of these.

So will we just keep scrapping each other on Orkut, collaborating on documents, and such?

We aren't isolated in the real world,and we just needn't be in the onlineworld

Think about the disparity between who we are online and offline; we all have a persona we like to project online. We have our nicks, our avatars. Now we aren't isolated in the real world, and we just needn't be in the online world… we'll be doing things together, but behind our online personas. Doing what together? Browsing, for one; sharing experiences, for another; sharing bookmarks, for a third. Our point is, there's no limit. What do you do with your friends offline? And isn't there something online for each thing you can do offline anyway?

A blogger called Joe Marchese had this to say in a recent post: "It's easy to see a not-too-distant future where everyone has an account for online projection of self, a means by which to edit that projection, and a dashboard for aggregating and organising other social content." And then: "Picture all the most useful functionality of the Web: the Diggs, the RSS feeds, video, picture and file sharing, search, etc. all blending together through social-network-like interfaces."

But on another note, is this coming-regulations? So people won't be able to fake their identities? Have you noticed Amazon's "Real Name" feature? How that works is, when you want to write reviews and submit photos to Amazon, you elect to identify yourself with your real name. (This is verified by way of the credit card on file.) Could social networks go the same way-requiring you to be who you "really" are? Speculation, but not speculation gone wild. Our take on this is that some networks-such as business networks-could go this way, and for good reason.

In the end, what we see is nothing less than the social network becoming the interface between self and world. On a "local" social network, you might well meet more people in six months than you did in the 10 years.

"Outside's overrated," as Justin Frankel put it.

The Network Is...

...the computer. Someone said that a long time ago, and that vision is inching ever closer to fruition
 

We like blogs, and some are worth quoting. (That's why we have a "Blogwatch" every month.) Here's from N F W Saunders of the University of Queensland: "Six months ago, I was 'desktop man.' I preferred my software locally installed. I wanted complete control of my machine, my desktop applications, my files. All that has changed and the keyword here is 'synchronisation.' Or rather, no need for synchronisation. Like many people I use a work computer and a machine at home… If like me you're a bit slow and don't get it yet, here's the soundbite: everything is in the one place."

You can guess the rest; Saunders is typical of those who have moved their apps to online. You can collaborate on stuff by just sending people a URL; you don't need to bother with synchronisation; hell, you don't even need to buy expensive software with features you don't need. The great thing is, these online applications-Google's apps come to mind first-are getting better.

Web apps are not confined to tasks such as word processing: witness Flex, an online compiler. We're close to the Death of the Desktop. If we can have online compilers, what is to stop us from imagining Photoshop online (already in the works, incidentally)? The entire program, with all its features? (Well, paid, of course…) Nothing in the term "personal computing" implies the Desktop: why not online, bandwidth willing? When the UIs are actually better? When they're mostly free? When they don't require updates?

That one thought is enough to get you thinking-will everything be done online? Here's a simple thought: we have thin clients and centralised servers-so what about the Net being one large, all-serving server? Not literally, but come to think of it, if there were a Google OS, couldn't that be a server for all our computers as thin clients?

So let's see what we do on our computers… we have an OS, we have a hard disk, and we run software. That's about it. All of it could be shifted online in theory. And in practice, what's left out is the part where the hardware is important-as in demanding games.

The desktop will become just the connecting device. Recall the "e-mail machines" that once made an entry into the market: all you could do was connect to the Net and retrieve mail. Now extend that, and say you just carry a basic OS on a thumb drive and plug it into any of these standardised "connecting devices." And even this is only needed assuming you don't have an Internet OS! And data online: why not? Free for basic use, paid for heavy use.

With your hard disk gone, where have your movies gone? Think YouTube. Where have your pictures gone? Think Flickr. And on, and on. In fact, it'll be even better, because Google's hard disks don't crash. They don't have viruses either. It's only a question of when. Google and others have already taken the baby steps. Head to http://tinyurl.com/258km3 for more.

Sun's "The network is the computer" comes to mind, and we now see Sun's wisdom: they were saying this long before any of this saw the light of day.

Web x.0

Don't call a rose by any name at all!
 

So here we are, at the fag end of our story of what the Web will be. Search, personalisation, socialising, computing, all online. A lot of what our sixth sense has told us falls under the umbrella of Web 2.0: think social networks. Some of it is still Web 1.0, as in targeted search. Some of it is, well, Web 1.4.3, as in a P2P Google.

Tell us about the future, you say. OK, the future is Web 3.0. Just kidding. Serious kidding. Fill in that "x" above with anything you like, give it a definition (complete with meme-map and all), then put it up on your blog. If you're lucky, quite a few people will take to it. Like they've taken to "Web 2.0." No, we're not giving a dog a bad name and hanging it-we're saying "2.0" is an unnecessary appendage, that it has no future. Allow us  to be unconventional and tell you there's going to be no Web 3.0: we're not gazing into our crystal ball here. We're staring into empty space for as far as we can see.

"The Emperor's New Web," we like to call it. Everyone's talking about it, and no-one knows what Web 2.0 is. Yes, no-one. If crowds have wisdom, this is entirely the Emperor phenomenon-how can no-one know what it is? 68 million Google results for the term later, you'll see no two people agreeing upon a definition. What's worse is that all these definitions are a waste of time.

Think about a Google OS. What Web x.0 or x.3.12 would that be? Would it be a Web at all? It would be more like Sun's The Computer… so, well, how about a Computer 1.1.0.3? Then, think about our personalised Web-where reconnaissance agents fetch you Your Page. Same question.

The sub-heads in a seminal Web 2.0-defining document-by Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly publishing-went "The Web As Platform," "Harnessing Collective Intelligence," "End of the Software Release Cycle," "Lightweight Programming Models," "Rich User Experiences," and more. A certain "DMBlackthorn" commented, "A lot of people on the Interweb find this Web 2.0 a bit confusing. Why can't we just call it like it is-the Interweb?" 2.0 thumbs up for DMBlackthorn!

Now much of what O'Reilly mentioned does hold true for the future, such as the Web as Platform, and Harnessing Collective Intelligence. But will it hold up to 3.0, 4.0 and beyond? Stephen Baker of BusinessWeek recently said in a column that Web 3.0 will be easier, cheaper, and more pervasive; that it will be always on, everywhere; that we'll be able to control our data better. Easier? Yes. Cheaper? Yes, if we go the Web computing way. More pervasive? Yes, if we go the Web-is-our-society way. Control our data better? Now there it goes a little fuzzy…

He invited comments upon his post, but we didn't bother making any. These Web x.0 things are terms. Lots of terms. Enough already. There's the wisdom of crowds, there's the need for rich user experiences, and a ton of other things. Let's take all that burden off a poor term (pun intended).




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