What did we learn today about the future of search?

I’m sat on the plane home from the Farsight 2011 – Beyond the Search Box event putting together my thoughts on the day. I covered much of the event in real-time on Twitter – the 4+ hours of talk, debate and sometimes joust whizzed by so here is a smash and grab of the things I took away …you’ll no doubt get lengthy coverage from far better writers than me so I’m giving you my gut feel of sorts.


  1. A feisty emcee is worth their weight in gold – Vivek Wadwha
  2. …especially when you have a controversy the morning of the event meant 
  3. Due to that controversy though, we didn’t get as much from the event as we could have. A shame and you have to question the timing of Google’s announce of their “news”. 
  4. However, there were some nuggets on the future of search
    • social will be a key element
    • humans will likely still have a part to play in keeping the web orderly
    • more natural interfaces are needed/wanted (be they speech, anticipatory search, or crowdsourced)
    • Interop in search could open a whole new wave of innovation…but nobody seems keen to make the first move 
  5. Many folks think we’re paying for search…obviously indirectly rather than with currency 
  6. The word monopoly came up much more than I expected…and usually not in reference to Microsoft 
  7. The future of search is verbs – still noodling on this one but my inclination is that it supports the Bing notion of being a decision engine. I may be wrong 
  8. Kudos to Stefan, Big Think and the Bing folks for pulling this event together – we need more of this kind of event IMHO. It wasn’t perfect but there was an awful lot right about it in terms of pushing forward a discussion on a big topic.


More detailed coverage is below

That’s my snapshot view….you can get a blow by blow liveblog from Danny Sullivan who earns my utter respect for being able to liveblog such a fast moving gig. My longer form coverage is below and I also took a bunch of photos that are up on Flickr – please feel free to re-use.

My overall feeling is today did help to move the discussion of search along. Not as much as I would have liked as there was far too much anticipation in the first hour about the big news this morning with accusations of Bing “cheating” by copying Google search results. You could sense blood in the water and though Peter Thiel kicked things off, questioning whether Bing was breaking even and suggesting it was the only potential challenger due to capital costs needed to run search. He also claimed that Powerset (in which he invested) became Bing…which frankly aint true. Anyway, everyone was treating that as the appetizer to the main event.

The main event duly arrived as Harry Shum of Bing, Matt Cutts of Google and Rich Skrenta of Blekko took to the stage for a panel discussion hosted by Vivek Wadwha. He proved to be an interesting selection of emcee – he was feisty, happy to ask the tough questions and had an unpredictability in pronouncing speakers names that kept me amused. Kara Swisher labeled him as snarktastic!

My takeaway from the heated debate that followed is that we didn’t learn very much. Each side traded barbs about the whole situation – my sources tell me they were having a chuckle about it all backstage but I’m not so sure. It may have been fun to invite Danny Sullivan up on stage to join the fray but ultimately, this story will play out on the web more than it was going to on stage. Both sides got in some rib tickling punches before Wadwha moved the debate on to why we were really here – The Future of Search.

If I have a complaint, it would be that this topic didn’t get addressed enough during the day. The panel session did touch on the subject of how we get some industry standards both in measurement and sharing of data and I can only hope that the conversation continued behind the curtains. Wadwha took an interesting line of thinking that positioned Google as Windows and suggested they needed to open their API’s to let everyone else play. Let’s not forget Blekko were up on stage too and Rich had some fine points to make about the need to get a lot of the crap off the web – they just announced they’re banning a ton of spam sites. At this point the gloves came off again with a discussion of whether AdSense ads are a form of spam and whether Google should open up their data to help everyone clean up the web. This all ended in an interesting but ultimately too short discussion of the role of humans in cleaning the web versus machines.

At the end of all this, did we learn more about the Future of Search? Maybe. It helped to tease out important conversations about sharing of data (intentionally) to make the web a better place. I would also love to see more of the discussion on the role of humans vs. algorithms. We came back to this a little later with when social search came up.

When asked what the future of search is, here’s what each panelist offered back

  • Google: continue to provide best results for users
  • Bing: it’s difficult to interpret user intent…we’re doubling down on understanding “who”, about the user, what they want to do. harness the collective intelligence of the social network
  • Blekko: categorize and curate to make search better. the only way to clean up the web is to wikipedia-ize it


Next up, Jaron Lanier – hands up who knew Jaron works for Microsoft? For some reason Jaron’s slides didn’t show up and he must have been the only dude in the room who hadn’t heard about the big story of the morning. I didn’t catch much of Jaron’s talk and he only spoke for about 5 mins but I did hear him say he’d happily pay 1 penny for search if it were easy – suggesting that it’s not easy today. This theme of paying for search came up many times and the consensus was we already pay for search – indirectly.

Next up was Esther Dyson who was my favorite speaker of the day – she was on stage several times and really stuck to a few main themes. She mentioned a discussion with Bill Gates at the D: Conference who said to her the future of search was verbs. If by this Esther and Bill meant search is about us doing stuff, I’m totally with them. I’ll come back to another Esther comment later that got me thinking…

Next up, was Di-Ann Eisnor from Waze who broke in to demo mode and talked about crowd sourced traffic/travel info – GPS by your friends if you like. In principle, it seemed great but if you have friends like I do, they’d have great fun in gaming the system to route me into traffic.

The quick fire continued and Blaise Aguera y Arcas was up next. I’m a self-confessed Blaise fan and was slightly alarmed to hear the demo-meister would be delivering a demo free session <yikes>. Fear not, Blaise delivered a Metro-esque presentation highlighting how similar mobile search is to PC based search these days – thus lots more potential in mobile. Danny got a good shot of his slides that I missed – see below

Next up was Kevin Kelly and a panel of folks – Professor Marti Hearst from University of California-Berkeley, Sam Altman, CEO of Loopt and Ty Ahmad-Taylor, CEO of FanFeedr. I missed some of this discussion due to some technical issues (domain password expiration) but of the group, I learned most from Marti and Sam. In particular, I was surprised with Marti’s acknowledgment of the work Microsoft is doing around natural user interfaces and the benefit they could have for search. She also touched on the future of search being driven by social search….another area we’re focused on with Bing & Facebook. We returned to the discussion of search and verbs and got in to some confusion about what is a noun and a verb but landed on “finding” as the new preferred verb for this group. They also all claimed that we already pay for search which Kevin seemed to dismiss – I thought that could be a rich topic of debate but I’ll bow to the wiser head of Mr Kelly. Checking back on my Twitter stream, this stood out for me from the panel.


Finally in this session, Kevin Kelly said he’s like to have search answers whispered in his ear and I suggested he should read the Internet of Things post on this blog.

We then had a session on when the machine takes over which I didn’t follow in detail (lack of coffee) but did get sucked back in to the conversation by Chris Ahlberg of Recorded Future. They have what I can only describe as a prediction engine which I need to go check out….I’m assuming it doesn’t give me the lottery numbers for next week Smile

Next up Gary Small – I’ve read some of his work recently and it’s fascinating stuff. Added to which, Gary has fun in his delivery. He’s been doing research with people who’ve never use the web (or search) before to understand the effect it has on their brains. Quite where he finds these people I don’t know but his MRI scans of what the human brain looks like “on Google (or Bing)” are fun to see. What I learnt from his talk led me to this tweet


Gary finished up by predicting we’d be wearing headbands soon that could read our minds and take predictive on our behalf. Sounds similar to some of Craig Mundie’s themes though I’ve not heard Craig go as far as headbands. Yet Smile

Next up was from Ilya Segalovich, Co Founder of Yandex who got a rough ride from Wadwha – a shame actually as I think Ilya had more to offer and was put off his stride a little. Vivek started by asking him “why isn’t Russia taking over the world” and finished by asking him what can Google steal from Yandex. Ilya charitably offered up shopping and a “few other things”. Yandex does really rather well in Russia and I think he got short shrift. Shame as there is more to learn here about what they’re thinking about for the future.

Things began to wind down from there though the final panel left me with a few thoughts – this cartoon from Tom Gauld depicted some of what Esther talked about when she said search needs to have more AI – to understand what we’re trying to do and the benefit of pattern recognition.

Artificial Intelligence

Esther also said that as search gets better, we need to think of smarter questions. Not so sure about that one…

Ilya posed a great question asking how search history could become portable across search engines – asking when could you take your search history from Google to Yandex. Meanwhile, Gary warned that we’re all walking around with our own personalized, connected computer and though our brains will get better at handling tech he questions whether we’ll lose ability to talk face to face and understand things like non verbal cues. Somewhat ironically, I’m about to hit publish on this post from 20k ft in the air….while chatting to Jaron Lanier via email….he’s on a parallel flight from Oakland to Seattle. Our new reality?