Google VP Marissa Mayer talked about the future of search on the Google blog this afternoon. Mayer apparently spent Saturday keeping track of all the things that came up in conversations that she wished she could search for. The result was a long list of questions ranging from “Which school has a team called the Banana Slugs?” to “What are the dance steps to the Charleston?” to “What kind of bird is that flying over there?”
I would wager that for most of us, if we repeated Mayer’s exercise we’d each come up with an equally long and random list of potential search queries. According to Mayer, she could come up with answers to all of her questions (and does at the end of her post), but couldn’t do it “ideally or easily” using today’s search tools, which she calls “a 90% solution,” in which the remaining work will require the most effort.
“Search is a science that will develop and advance over hundreds of years. Think of it like biology and physics in the 1500s or 1600s: it’s a new science where we make big and exciting breakthroughs all the time,” wrote Mayer, saying that it could be a hundred years or more before we have “an understanding of the proverbial molecules and atoms of search.”
Mayer also presents a concise definition of Google’s ideal search engine, and presumably what they’re working toward:
“[The idea search engine is] your best friend with instant access to all the world’s facts and a photographic memory of everything you’ve seen and know. That search engine could tailor answers to you based on your preferences, your existing knowledge and the best available information; it could ask for clarification and present the answers in whatever setting or media worked best.”
To reach that goal, Mayer talked about the things that she’d like to see improved upon in the near future.
Mayer says that search needs to be more accessible. For much of her Saturday experiment she wasn’t near a computer, so couldn’t just sit down and do a search. Mobile search is getting better, but it’s still slow and clunky and interrupts the flow of conversation. Mayer even throws out the wacky (and slightly creepy) idea of a wearable device that constantly listens to you talk and searches for answers to questions you voice.
In addition to accessibility and better mobile search, Google wants to expand upon the ways we interact with search, which means voice, natural language, and images. “You should be able to talk to a search engine in your voice. You should also be able to ask questions verbally or by typing them in as natural language expressions,” writes Mayer. “You shouldn’t have to break everything down into keywords.”
Mayer expects to see advances in these areas in the next ten years that will have us searching via cell phone using voice and speaking in natural language, or by playing a song or taking a picture.
Google bought YouTube for a reason, after all. Mayer says that links to information can be great, but some searches — like her need to remember how to dance the Charleston — can’t be readily solved with textual results. Mayer says that over the past year Google has been trying to figure out how to take advantage of rich media results and display them in the best way possible. She promises that we’ll see the “fruits of this experimentation in the coming months,” but that over the next 10 years things will change even more dramatically.
We theorized in July that an iGoogle video search widget hinted at some of that future.
“The one thing that the search experience can’t be – especially in the face of the online media explosion we’re currently experiencing – is stagnant,” she says.
I’ve argued here that social search isn’t the future, but it is a feature of future search engines. “Don’t get me wrong, social search is a great idea. Leaning on data from Twitter, StumbleUpon, del.icio.us, Digg, and every other site you participate in to augment and enhance search results is something that someone will do soon,” we wrote. “And whenever someone figures out how to do it well — which will involve making social search run in the background during traditional searches, it will rock.”
We put our money on Microsoft and Facebook innovating first in this area, but Google isn’t sitting still. “Search engines of the future will be better in part because they will understand more about you, the individual user,” promises Mayer. Mayer talks about Google learning from your previous search history, your location, and your social graph.
“There’s a lot of expertise, knowledge, and context in users’ social graphs, so putting tools in place to make ‘friend-augmented’ search easy could make search more efficient and more relevant,” she writes.
Why is Google investing so much time and effort into machine translation? Simple, says Mayer, the web isn’t all in one language. “We know there are cases where an answer exists on the web, but not in a language you read,” she writes. “The basic concept is — if the answer exists online anywhere in any language, we’ll go get it for you, translate it and bring it back in your native tongue. This is an incredibly empowering idea that could really change the way that users experience the web and communicate with each other, particularly in languages where not a lot of native content is available.”
This month, Google turned 10 years old, and Mayer’s look into the future is a thought experiment about how Google might look at 20. It’s an interesting read, though, and provides insights into where Google thinks search is going and where they might be investing their R&D money over the next few years.