Search Engines and Active Listening

Search Engines that Talk Back (Jeremy Zawodny’s blog)

Jeremy’s thoughts on search as a “skill” are interesting. His conclusion, based on his considerable knowledge, is that search shouldn’t have to be a ‘skill’; it should just work.

This is an interesting observation, especially in light of a recent post on Yahoo!’s Search blog regarding the daughter of a Yahoo employee using search to find her first car. I commented on that here, essentially saying that search is a skill that all youngsters (heck, everyone) will need to have in the future.

So where does that leave things? Without undo harshness to Jeremy, I think there are many skills which needn’t be: typing should be replaced by voice entry (or a neural link); auto mechanics should be unnecessary (cars shouldn’t need maintenance, save for catastrophic accidents, etc)… almost anything that we have to do today due to a lack of the ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ solution should be unnecessary.

But I think Jeremy’s meta point is more interesting; search should use the “active listening” skills that one is taught in an Org Behavior class… my search engine should be in tune with me, continually helping me get closer to my “intent” by looking at my search stream both in real time and historically, leveraging any other knowledge (my blog topics, email, et al) that I care to feed it with, and most importantly, asking me clarifying questions (just like “active listening”).

That day is coming, with the following already live:

– A9 is leveraging search history in a significant way

– Teoma (Ask Jeeves) & AllTheWeb (Yahoo) present alternatives

– Eurekster is using social networking filtering

– Switchboard is making heavy use of synonym clarification (e.g., searching for “leaky faucet” gets you a list of plumbers)

Having spent some time with Gary Flake & Daniel Fain (Yahoo/Overture R&D labs), I’m confident that Yahoo, Google and MSFT are thinking in this general direction. Most of this just seems inevitable as the next phase of search, moving us one step closer to Battelle’s perfect search.

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