Search As We Know It Isn't Just 'The Worst' -- It's Obsolete

A little over a week after Facebook unveiled its search engine and hot on the heels of Google's earnings call, Buzzfeed's John Herrman has published an interesting piece that argues we're "entering the worst period in modern search history." Not only are search engines "burying the past," writes Herrman, who notes information about President Obama's 2009 inauguration was almost immediately hidden beneath more recent results, but, more problematically, Google isn't tapping into the social web, and social media sites haven't figured out how to search themselves.

Herrman writes:

This leaves us in a strange position: Google is unable to index the social web, and the social web isn't ready to index itself.

We may be entering the worst period is modern search history, a time when our most powerful search engine is cut off from the internet's most valuable, and fastest-growing, collections of information, and when those collections have very little awareness of themselves, leaving us stranded in the middle.

There's no question searching Twitter and Facebook remains a summarily miserable experience (though both social networks have tried to improve their search tools). And yes, Google still isn't bringing in social results (unless you count Google+), while Bing, on the other hand, has milked Facebook's cozy relationship with Microsoft to infuse the search engine with some key social data, like showing in search results what Facebook friends have "liked" on the social network.

But a "search desert?" Search is undergoing one of its most dramatic and exciting transformations in years. Search is less in danger of becoming a desert -- and more at risk of being deserted.

To be fair, Herrman is talking about what search looks like right now, and he's right that too often our results are disappointing, with siloed data making services less helpful than they should be. Yet if we peer just a little bit ahead, things seem to be getting much more interesting.

Typing keywords and hitting "enter" is becoming a thing of the past, and the larger trend in the tech world is a movement toward algorithms that scour the web to deliver an answer, not pages of information. We're transitioning beyond searching for stuff, and instead relying on technology that delivers details to us. It's not about finding what's out there. It's about being told.

A Google visualization showing how the world could look through its "Google Glasses."

As I wrote in my recent story on the origins of Siri, the search engine stands to be supplemented by the "do engine," a concept developed by Siri's co-founders that presented a new paradigm for engaging with the web. The goal was to let users have a "conversation with the Internet" via an artificially intelligent assistant that could pluck out the details we'd need to schedule travel plans, book tickets or reserve tables at a restaurant (and that was only the beginning of what they imagined).

Tom Gruber, Siri's co-founder, would illustrate the startup's virtual assistant by likening Google to a librarian, and Siri to a concierge. Google, given a keyword or broad topic, could deliver the virtual equivalent of a stack of books (a.k.a. a list of links) that a person could then sift through, cobbling together an impression of what to do next based on what she learned from the different sources. Siri, the concierge, could take your question -- phrased in a natural way -- then answer it, picking and choosing the relevant information and sources on its own.

Apple may have de-prioritized Siri's "do engine" dream, but other tech giants are starting to see it through. Typing keywords and hitting enter looks increasingly obsolete. As Microsoft search director Stefan Weitz told me in an interview last year, Microsoft's "decision engine" aspires to preempt the asker's question.

"The implicit searching on your behalf -- without you initiating it via a query -- is absolutely where we're going," Weitz said. "Today the trigger is 'keyword' plus 'enter.' But tomorrow the trigger event could be you woke up and it's 8 a.m. and the train [you were supposed to take] is not functioning."

Google Now, Google's assistant, is already making good on that vision: it can anticipate what we'll ask before we ask it, and deliver what we want before we go looking for it. It prompts us when a three-car pileup means we need to leave earlier than we anticipated for an appointment, it tells us when there's a fascinating landmark just around the corner and automatically summons up restaurant suggestions when we go someplace new.

Herrman is quite right in pointing out that valuable social data is falling between the cracks and remains difficult to find. Yet we're on a cusp of an even bigger move from searching to being spoon-fed information. We can be certain our friends' status updates and tweets will -- before long -- be included in the diet.

As author, entrepreneur and search expert John Battelle has noted, "The future of search is a conversation with someone you trust."