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The Future of Search: Beyond the Horizon

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I was asked by SEMPO (the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization) to speculate on the future of search marketing. Then came the hard part: Limit it to one column.

The thrilling part of speculating about any aspect of the Internet, particularly search, is its virtually limitless potential. Every day new possibilities open up. I still believe that the Internet, and whatever it eventually morphs into, will be the single biggest factor in history to change our society. It already reaches into every aspect of our lives, and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Borders will crumble, the world will be at our fingertips, lines of trade will change completely, and our interactions with others, will change forever.

But let’s start with search marketing, and to do that, we have to look at search. One has to follow the progression of the other. The easy thing to do would be look a little in the future, where we can still discern a possible horizon and build from there. As soon as you look over that horizon, it becomes much more difficult to guess what might come. But it’s into that great blue yonder where I believe the really exciting future of search lies.

Search Unlocks the Internet

Search technology is the key that unlocks all the Internet has to offer. It’s our librarian, our map and our guide. In all this vast collection of data, it is search that gets us to the place we are looking for. There can be no downplaying the role of search in the future of the Internet. However, to continue to play this role, as the Internet grows search must do two things:

First, it has to be more diligent in uncovering all that the Internet offers. The ability to peek inside multiple file formats and index the information that exists within is imperative for search success. Microsoft has already announced a new way to do this with their WinFS XML approach. As the Internet reaches out to include more forms of media and information, search must be able to translate, interpret and then point us to the right place.

Secondly, search has to become more intuitive and easier to use. It has to be better at anticipating what we’re looking for, without depending on us to literally spell it out. It has to find what we want, before we might even know what it is we want. We need a search engine that understands us, with all our interests, biases and notions.

So, to follow these two big mandates, let’s look at some things that could or will define search in the near future.

The Localization of Search

Search has already taken its first few steps towards being more geographically relevant. The big players are all working on providing results that are targeted to the area that you’re searching from. Suddenly, search moves from being a global tool to one you could use to find the right mechanic in your neighborhood, or a Thai restaurant in the city you’re visiting. The biggest stumbling block is the method a search engine uses to determine your current location. You could supply the information, either knowingly or unwittingly, or the search engine may try to use your IP address to determine where you’re at. Both methods have their drawbacks.

But the localization of search is vital in moving search as a viable marketing tool from businesses tapping into a global market to the shop down the street. Search is setting its sights squarely on the Yellow Page market in making this move.

The Personalization of Search

I don’t think it’s any great revelation to say that we all search differently. For an interface that provides few options for customization, we have seen a remarkable amount of divergence in both how we use search engines and how we respond to the results. We are human, we are unique, and we want a search tool that recognizes this.

This fact has not been lost on the engineers at Yahoo and Google. You can bet your Google IPO budget that they’re currently hard at work building a user interface that allows you to tweak how you search and what’s presented to match your own personal tastes and preferences. They’re also working on intelligent systems that will gradually discover your preferences by examining past behavior and quietly adjust your search results based on what it learns.

The Integration of Search

For most of us, search is usually 3 steps away from whatever we’re doing. We have to launch our browser, go to a search engine and type in a query. The intention of the major search engines, including the new Microsoft Search, is to eliminate 1, 2 or even all 3 of these steps.

The advent of toolbars and search appliances is the first step at integrating search into our regular desktop activities. The search box is always there, just waiting for you to plug in a few words and hit the enter key. And with Microsoft’s work on Implicit Query, you don’t even have to ask. Microsoft will keep an eye on what you’re doing and ask you if you want to launch a search based on the context of your task. For example, let’s say you’re composing an email about your upcoming trip to New York in November. Implicit Query will quietly give you the options of searching for New York hotels, airfares, events and restaurants in the ever present search pane in Outlook.

In fact, a search appliance called Blinkx has already taken some major steps down this road. If you’re looking for the promise of search integration, take a look at Blinkx.

The Unwiring of Search

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of search is when we unhook it from the desktop and take it to the streets. The spread of WiFi and other wireless accessibility options introduces a whole new perspective of search functionality. Suddenly, search becomes a way to find not just that certain something somewhere in the world, but everything that’s just around the next corner. As the world becomes serious about staking a place online, wireless access suddenly makes that world available anytime, anywhere. You could take a virtual stroll around the block to see what you’ll find before you make your first step.

The Expansion of Search Indexes

As we start to wrap our minds around the potential of some of the concepts explored here, we quickly realize that today’s search engines have only scratched the surface of what has to be indexed and made instantly available to us all. Imagine every store in a city putting their inventory online. Consider the ability to truly index media files, or other formats that have remained invisible to search engines up to now. Google has billions of pages indexed, and that’s only the tiniest fraction of one percent of what ultimately has to be indexed in order for search to truly unlock the potential of the entire online world.

Desperately Seeking Sorbet

At the convergence of these changes, let’s look at one example of how the new search could make my life easier. First, I have an obsession with chocolate. On a trip to New York, I happened to find incredible chocolate sorbet at a little kiosk in Grand Central Station. Since then, I’ve been trying to find another place that serves chocolate sorbet and so far I’ve been unsuccessful. So, now I’ve set the stage.

Let’s say I’m in San Francisco and I’m on the streets, looking for things to do. I pull out my wireless PDA and the built in GPS system automatically knows where I am. By looking at my scheduler, it also knows I have some free time. So, the search suggestion tool, built right into the PDA’s OS, gives me some options of things I can do in the area. The food option, as always, catches my eye. The OS already knows the types of food I like and the budget ranges I’m interested in. It presents more options, and I choose the dessert one. Lo and behold, it’s found a place that serves chocolate sorbet (it knows me too well, this PDA) and it’s only 2 blocks away. I hit the “take me there” button, it loads a map and guides me right to the front door and chocolate nirvana. (By the way, I’m serious about the Chocolate Sorbet. If anyone knows of good sorbet, drop me an email)

The simple scenario above shows how search will become an indispensable part of almost every activity we do. The lines between online and offline will disappear, and integration of the potential of the Internet with our lives will be complete. The future of search lies at the center of it all.

So, what about Search Marketing?

In the midst of writing this article, I was called by a fund manager for a major mutual fund that has some investments in the Industry. She asked me if I believed search advertising revenues would flat line and maybe even start dropping in the near future.

I said that it’s possible that revenue produced by existing business models could slow from their previous meteoric rise, but I wouldn’t ever see them decreasing. As keyword inventories get tapped and bid prices find their natural ceilings, we have to see revenue growth slow.

But then I started talking about some of the potential of search that I’ve laid out in this article. We have to understand that this channel will evolve into an integrated and fundamental function of being online. It will be at the base of all we do. And the opportunities to deliver relevant, targeted marketing messages to highly motivated consumers will grow exponentially.

Will search marketing be the same as it is today? No. Will it be as straight forward? No. Will it cross over into other channels to a greater extent? Yes. Will there be money in it? Yesbillions and billions. Do Search Marketers have a challenge ahead of them? You have no idea how big a challenge!

Change will be the imperative for the industry. The search marketers who survive and prosper will be the ones who anticipate, pursue and embrace change. The pace of change in search will accelerate in direct relation to the amount of money invested. Microsoft’s entry into search is only the beginning. As search moves to the center of the online experience through the convergence of new search functionality, it will create a white hot tornado of demand. New technology will appear, be assimilated and become the new standard at a dizzying rate. The marketing potential of search will also move at a breakneck pace.

The largest search technology players will be investing huge amounts in monetizing this potential. They will be joined by a long line of partners waiting to jump on the rapidly moving bandwagon. Finally, we’ll see large portions of traditional marketing budgets being directed to the new online Chimera which has partially evolved from the search we once knew.

As with any situation that involves accelerated change, uncertainty and discontinuous innovation, there will be a huge demand for visionary practitioners to help navigate through this change. The brightest and best search marketers will accept this role and work to help advertisers plug into the new possibilities. It will take time for seamless solutions to catch up with the innovations and until then, it will be up to search marketing professionals to bridge the gaps. To do this, the search technology providers will finally, for once and for all, bury the hatchet and embrace search marketing vendors as their partners in the industry. They’ll have no choice. They won’t have enough feet on the street to help introduce the channel to all the potential advertisers and explain the intricacies. The potential for search marketing companies is huge, but so is the challenge.

When Will We Be There?

So, how far off is this bright, promised tomorrow? Not as far as you might think. Google’s IPO was the first sign. They were bankrolling what promises to be a pretty intense head to head with Microsoft. I believe we’ll see the ball start rolling in 2005, pick up speed in the next two years, and by 2008 you won’t recognize your friendly, neighborhood search engine. Buckle up, it promises to be a hell of a ride!

Gord Hotchkiss is the President and CEO of Enquiro, whose goal is to push the search engine optimization industry forward both in terms of measurable results and client satisfaction.

The Future of Search: Beyond the Horizon
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