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    Creative Commons License
    Rabble Rousing Random Ramblings by S Jagadish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

    September 12, 2008

    "Search solved 90-95%" - Google. "I most humbly disagree" - Me!

    The LA Times has an interview with Google's Marissa Mayer on the occasion of the company celebrating a decade since it was incorporated. One of the questions she was asked was 'What do the next 10 years hold for Google?'. Her answer made my jaw drop.

    I think there will be a continued focus on innovation, particularly in search. Search is an unsolved problem. We have a good 90 to 95% of the solution, but there is a lot to go in the remaining 10%.
    There's no way Google has solved 90-95% of the search problem. Remember that currently search is essentially a one-way lookup. You know a phrase and you find other documents/media on the internet which have that phrase inline or have some metadata containing that phrase. But there's no way to do the reverse look-up. I have the content. I need to find out the context.

    Here's my search problem. I am an avid quizzer and I have no hang-ups in using web search to find the answer when I've exhausted the limit of my guessing. Imagine the only information I have is a photo or a silhouette. Maybe the information I have is a part of an audio or video clip. I need to find out whose photo it is, or who composed (or spoke or sang) the contents of the audio clip, or what movie (or news archive) the video clip is from.

    Right now, to the best of my knowledge, web search (even one as good as Google's) cannot solve this problem. In fact, I reckon that this isn't a problem that is unique to me. Just about everyone who has used the internet for a length of time has realized that it is almost impossible to find an answer to the question "What song's tune is something like ...blah...?", unless you can figure out the equivalent musical notes (Sa ri ga ma etc. or C D E F etc.) and then trigger the search.

    An interesting aspect of Google's 10 years is how it is so tough for a company to predict correctly who their competitor would be ten years hence. Just think about 1998 and how various companies in the internet industry would have reacted had you let them in on who their competitors in 2008 would be, by travelling to the future, and back.

    There's no way that Microsoft would have considered Google (& Yahoo! too) a competitor, especially in the context of moving applications and user data online. Ditto for hosting companies (as well as ISPs) & Amazon or Akamai, RealNetworks & Macromedia Flash, the music industry & Apple. The list goes on!

    Update: Marissa Mayer outlines her views on how search might change over the next decade. This is more or less a clarification about her 'Search is 90-95% solved' claim. The interesting part is when she talks about how a search need not use words at all, something I mentioned earlier in this post.
    Further, why should a search be words at all? Why can’t I enter my query as a picture of the birds overhead and have the search engine identify what kind of bird it is? Why can’t I capture a snippet of audio and have the search engine identify and analyze it (a song or a stream of conversation) and tell me any relevant information about it? Services that do parts of that are available today, but not in an easy-to-use, integrated way.

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