A quick recap: Google rose to become the leader in search through their backlink-focused algorithms. They crawl and index a huge portion of the web, and pull from this index when we search. The three parts of the search engine (the crawl/index, interface, and algorithms) are crucial for any engine and, at least for now, most people think Google handles them best.
Looking forward, it’s fairly obvious that these three parts will always be necessary. What will change is what each will look like and how we use them. Let’s start with the crawl/index.
The Semantic Web
The semantic web is the future of search, on the back end. Until recently, search engines could only read and store the words on different parts of webpages. This type of index serves most purposes just fine, until you have an ambiguous query–say “bacon actor”. The engine might not know if you mean Kevin or just a guy acting like the food (because I’m sure that happens?).
That’s where the semantic web can help. Semantics is “the study of meaning…[focusing] on the relationship between signifiers“. Basically, it would involve identifying a collection of “things” (like movies, products, people), and assigning them characteristics and relationships. The “person” Kevin Bacon would have a profession of actor (a characteristic) and would have been a part of the movie Hollow Man (a relationship), and search engines would “understand” this.
With this system in place, when you include the characteristic “actor” in the “bacon actor” search, it’s going to assume you mean Kevin (or David?), and can also give you all kinds of information about your choice.
As you may have realized, this is already starting to happen. Go ahead and search “bacon actor” and see what the SERP looks like (Search Engine Result Page). While you’re at it, try “Raleigh weather” or “define philanthropy” or “10 dollars in pounds”. The break-out results at the top or right of the normal SERP is Google’s progress in Semantic Search, and they’re adding to it all the time.
There was a particularly famous example of this kind of search, made public on Reddit about a year ago. It involved searching for movies only by long descriptions of their plots, and Google did an outstanding job (compared to Bing/Yahoo) finding them. Discussion here if you’re interested. Go ahead and try one yourself, you might be amazed!
So, a semantic-style index will be much easier for us searchers, but it will not come easily. Websites would have to start marking up their sites with “meta-data” that identifies the “things”, and that can be a lot of work. It is happening, but slowly. For example, have you ever searched and seen someone’s picture next to the article they wrote (try “windows 8 review”)? That requires some back-end coding. Luckily, people are starting to embrace it. Once the semantic infrastructure is complete, we will be one step closer to having search engines understand our queries, as opposed to just searching for words.
The interface seems like a minor part of the search engine, but it has large implications. It’s no longer white background verses colorful background–it’s where and how those backgrounds are shown. The obvious example here is mobile. I can’t find the source right now, but I read last week that a representative from Google said that 1 in 3 searches now include a place. “Raleigh weather” or “temperature NYC” are examples, but these examples are best shown on a regular computer, since they’re more research-based.
What about when you’re downtown at a friends house and you want some pizza? You pick up your phone and type in “pizza downtown raleigh”, but should the results you get be the same as at a computer? Google thinks not. They show more action-based results: phone numbers of restaurants, maps with directions, reviews by your friends, etc.
The future is even more action-oriented. Siri gave us the ability to simply speak to our phone and get results, but we still have to use the phone itself to follow directions or read the resulting information.
Google’s external research department Google X is working on the next step: Google Glass. Project Glass is an “augmented reality head-mounted display”. Think virtual reality, but instead of a video game or X-men training room, it’s Google at your finger tips (eye tips?). The idea is to give directions, show calendar reminders, or even identify restaurants/shops right in front of your eyes without having to touch anything.
Here’s an awesome video about what it would look like:
Freakin’ sweet, right? The rumor is that they want to move from a glasses setup to a contact lens, so that no one could even tell you were connected. I see some new rules for bar trivia in the future…
Apparently, the ultimate goal is to embed sensors in your brain so that it integrates with how you think. Sounds a bit scary (and it definitely is an ethical grey area), but it could have huge positive impacts on how the human race works and lives.
This is going to be the toughest part. It’s by far the most complicated, and it’s what makes Google Google. This is what determines that Gizmodo outranks TechCrunch for the query “xbox 720″. A lot of it comes from the text on the page, the links to the page/domain, social interactions, etc, but the actual ranking methods are far from understood.
I’m quite sure that the algorithms are so complex, even those who work on them at Google don’t understand them completely. It almost seems like the Manhattan Project–the engineers might understand part of the project, but no one knows how the entire thing works.
I’m actually going to save this part for another time. It’s basically the future of Google, and I’m trying to keep these short (ish). I’d like to say that the future is perfect SERPs, where exactly what you were looking for ranks highest, but I work in the industry–it’s our job to “unnaturally” change the SERPs so that our clients show up in them. This has gotten more difficult (or at least more complicated) over the years, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be impossible. The question is, how will Google keep giving us good results while only making it possible for deserving websites to show up? Hm…something to think about.
So, thing-based searching on your eyeball that returns perfect results? Sounds unprecedented, revolutionary. And I don’t think it’s far off. Stay tuned.
That concludes the 3 part series on search engines! Hopefully you enjoyed them and learned something cool. Look for quicker, less esoteric posts down the road! As always, thanks for reading.