Trends to Note in the Search Industry

Every so often it helps to take a step back from your industry so you can figure out where it is and where it’s going. The search industry is no exception. I’ve spotted some interesting issues and trends that I’d like to share with you. Finding a way to make use of these trends could help you in the long term.

Some of these were brought to mind thanks to a graduate student from Arizona. He was working on an article covering users’ views of the industry, saw my work, and figured I might have something useful to say. A little over half an hour of entertaining discussion later, I’d given him plenty of material, so it seems fair to me that I ended up with at least one article idea out of it.

One of the questions he asked me concerned the plethora of search engines online. Sure, there are three major search engines now, but there are tons of niche engines out there. Will there be more consolidation in the field, or more niche search engines, or what?

 

It seems to me that there will be some of both. Individual niche engines will come and go, but there will always be niche engines of one kind or another. If Alt Search Engines can cover the world’s first skin care search engine, and there is demand for that sort of thing, you can bet this part of the field isn’t going away or about to be eaten by Google.

Perhaps the best analogy is to compare the search field to the wide topic of medicine and health. For most of your problems, you’ll go to a general practitioner or family doctor. If your regular doctor sees that your problem is outside of his normal area(s) of expertise, however, he’ll refer you to a specialist. Ideally, returning to search, this is when you would leave Google and go to a site like WebMD or any of the other specialty search engines that cover your area of interest.

If we’re going to take a complete look at search engines, we can’t leave out social search engines. Yes, you can have a social site that doesn’t focus on searching the web, and you can have a search engine without social elements, but combining these two seems to add some real punch. I’ve covered LinkedIn and the power of networking. That site has a search function, of course, to let you find people; it is also indexed by some of the major search engines, including Google. But social sites can also be a powerful way to find information, and become semi-searchable resources in their own right.

The New York Times ran an article that opened with the story of Todd Small, a man living with multiple sclerosis. He logged on to a web site called PatientsLikeMe and filled out a profile. After putting in his medications, he discovered nearly 200 other members were taking a muscle relaxant that he was using – and they were taking it at a much higher dose. He realized that some of the problems he had been having stemmed from his dosage being too low, so he spoke with his doctor about making some adjustments. He’s now doing much better.

This is a trend that I see likely to continue well into the future. Specialized sites dedicated to people who share a common interest, for whatever reason, helping each other find the hard information they need. It may be an outgrowth of online communities and chat rooms, but sites such as PatientsLikeMe go much further. As the Times explains, “The members of PatientsLikeMe don’t just share their experiences anecdotally; they quantify them, breaking down their symptoms and treatments into hard data. They note what hurts, where and for how long. They list their drugs and dosages and score how well they alleviate their symptoms. All this gets compiled over time, aggregated and crunched into tidy bar graphs and progress curves by the software behind the site. And it’s all open for comparison and analysis. By telling so much, the members of PatientsLikeMe are creating a rich database of disease treatment and patient experience.”

Not all social networking communities that deliver solid information cover such a serious topic. You’ve no doubt heard of Yelp and other such sites that offer reviews of local businesses, written by site members who have patronized the business. Another example was recently unveiled by Redken, aimed at salon professionals who use the company’s Shades EQ Equalizing Conditioning Color Gloss professional hair color line. The site includes downloadable techniques and formulas using Shades EQ; it also features a video upload area for colorists to post their own videos illustrating their experiences with the product.

Of course this moves us smoothly from the topic of social search engines to social sites. With Google offering up OpenSocial and Yahoo joining it recently, we’re going to see a lot more sharing between these sites. This is potentially a very good thing.

I’m actually pretty tame and timid when it comes to social sites of various stripes, but I belong to several: LiveJournal, LinkedIn, Searchles, and others I don’t follow as closely. I have friends, or the equivalent, on all of those sites. It would be nice to be able to follow all of these friends from one page rather than go to each of these sites. Yes, the Internet makes us lazy.

There are several companies working on this problem. The one I heard about most recently is FriendFeed. Founded a few months ago by four ex-Google employees, it lets you subscribe to your friends’ updates across 35 social networks. Tamar Weinberg wrote about FriendFeed recently for Techipedia. She notes that by looking at someone’s FriendFeed page, you can find out what they’re interested in, their schedules, and how serious they are about social media.

She also points out that FriendFeed is more than just an aggregator. “Beyond learning about your users, FriendFeed allows users to comment on content within the site itself. You can ‘like’ certain discoveries of your friends and even engage in a discussion,” Weinberg explains.

This has a downside though: information overload. “At this time, unless you’re manually filtering out content or unsubscribing from friends whose content may not be relevant to your interests, there’s just a whole lot of information to read,” Weinberg notes. And someone like me would be in quite a quandary. I write about SEO, but my interests range all over the spectrum. There literally isn’t enough time in a day to read about all of them. Perhaps the next frontier in this kind of aggregation involves finding good ways to categorize and prioritize the items to which you have subscribed.

Of course the problem is worse if you’re popular – or possibly better, if you decide to harness your popularity. You’ve probably heard about PayPerPost and related phenomena, where bloggers are actually paid to write about certain topics. It’s a way to monetize your audience, but many wonder if it’s ethical. Google caused an uproar at one point when it adjusted the PageRanks of many bloggers who were participating in the PPP model.

The idea of paying for an audience built without an advertising context entered new territory recently when Business Week reported that Andrew Baron put his Twitter account up for sale to the highest bidder on eBay. Baron had accumulated about 1,400 friends, who signed up to get his tweets. This is understandable; as the co-founder of online video series Rocketboom, of course his microblogs would generate interest among a certain subset of people.

This was the first time anyone had tried to sell access to their Twitter friends, and naturally it inspired a lot of debate online. It raised privacy and ethical issues, and some were concerned about the precedent it might set. Baron had hoped the move would raise debate; he’d been feeling ambivalent about the technology, and wondered what others thought about it.

If we look past the privacy and ethical issues, it brings us down to the most basic commodity of all: attention. What is worth paying attention to? Search engines are supposed to help us answer this question by sorting and indexing the content of the web so that the items that are most relevant to our queries come up. Nobody pays to use a search engine – but advertisers pay to reach prospects. And many site owners pay to get to the top of the SERPs organically – in time, by learning how to do SEO and adjusting their sites accordingly, or in money, by paying someone else to do it.

The trend I most hope to see in the future is a reduction in cost – the cost in time for someone to find the information they want. Will that necessarily result in an increased cost to the person trying to reach that searcher? In all honesty, I don’t know. I’m not convinced that the search field is a zero-sum game. But I do know that everyone has a finite amount of time. I will pay the most attention to something that promises I will waste less of it. And that’s why the search field, and the ones connected to it, will continue to grow and change.

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