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Search Engines With Real Savvy

Pandora: This site uses very sophisticated tagging and your reactions to music to create personalized "stations" you can share with friends.
Pandora: This site uses very sophisticated tagging and your reactions to music to create personalized "stations" you can share with friends.
Today most search engines depend primarily on algorithmic processing: results that are ordered by popularity. But better systems are beginning to supplement the blunt-force approach. "We want to do a better job of understanding the user's intent and the content provider's intentions," says Peter Norvig, director of research for Google. "We mostly rely on matching keywords, but we'd like to get closer to matching the intent."

Microsoft is another company investing heavily in research on search technology. "We're working on all kinds of things that will go away from 'here's ten links on a page,'" says Adam Sohn, a director in Microsoft's online services group, which is responsible for the Windows Live portal. "If someone is searching for 'Jaguar,' he explains, "the smarts to distinguish between 'he's looking for a car' and 'a big cat in the jungle'--that's coming."

Search engines can also deliver improved, more personalized results by adding better sources of information. "A search engine would be very good at telling me who won the 17th World Series, but bad at telling who's the best nanny in the neighborhood," says Sohn. So search engines are adding social networking features for sharing information within small groups.

Social-network searching will extend to other areas, too. Sohn says most video sites encourage the people who upload clips and those who view them to add tags. "Over time, especially with video, there will be this social input, where people add tags to other people's video. Then you get this sort of community-reinforced set of searchable attributes."

Soliciting input will also help provide searchers with more personalized results. Norvig says Google should do a better job of helping people use the search engine the way it is by offering proactive suggestions--for example, "It looks like you're trying to do this kind of search; here's how you do it." Sohn says Microsoft is building two-way feedback mechanisms that will ask users how useful they found the search result.

Both Norvig and Sohn agree that one issue search engines will be addressing is how to present search results. Most search sites have many sections drawing on separate databases. "[We have] one look for Web sites, one for news, one for images," Norvig says of Google's site. "We want to find a way to combine all of that information." Microsoft's Sohn uses the example of combining results from Windows Live's QnA (question and answer) section with its main search section. "We need to build the connection between the two services. It's not a multiyear thing; it's in the next 12 to 18 months."

Special Report: Tomorrow's Technology

The Future of Your PC The Future of Robots
The Future of Cell Phones The Future of Privacy
The Future of the Web The Future of Nanotech
The Future of OSs The Future of You
The Future of Fun 100 Fearless Forecasts
Incredible Tech: Lies Ahead A Look Back
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