The search is on for a better search

by Peter Griffin / 14 January, 2012
Big changes are brewing in the multibillion-dollar industry that is online search.

Where would we be without Google? That long, narrow Google search box provides the answer to seemingly everything and we really are a nation of googlers. is the most visited website in this country and, the international version of the world’s most popular search engine, takes the third spot in a Top 10 that also includes YouTube and Facebook and the major media portals Stuff and Herald Online. In comparison, Yahoo – once a giant of internet searches – occupies sixth place, and Microsoft’s Bing search engine is a distant 50th.

Research released in December by AUT University shows that 53% of us use a search engine every day to look up information. And what are we looking for? In 2011, the most searched-for word by New Zealanders was “New Zealand”, followed by “Facebook”. Despite Google’s endless reach across the web, we are interested in ourselves and our mates.

But despite their value, search engines haven’t really changed much in the past 10 years. A search still generally involves entering a term or phrase into a query box, which returns a list of results ranked by their relevance. But big changes are brewing in the multibillion-dollar industry that is online search and many of them will start to transform how we look for tidbits of information on the internet.


The use of voice commands for search engines has been around for years, but was never sufficiently useful to take off. That started to change last year with the success of Siri – the natural language-detection software on Apple’s iPhone 4S smartphone. Siri, which has its roots in US military technology, lets you send a text message or add an appointment to your calendar without touching your phone – but will also search Google, Bing or Yahoo for phrases you verbally request. Siri works remarkably well, which comes down to its effectiveness in processing natural language – even if the Kiwi accent does cause a few hiccups. Now Apple’s rivals are in a race to catch up and mimic Siri on everything from laptops and tablets to smartphones and even home appliances.


One of the major changes hitting search is its integration with social media and the greater attention it pays to the torrents of information spewed out of the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Google Realtime is a Google add-on to its search engine that supplements search results with real-time information from social networks. Debuting in 2009, it initially fed Twitter updates into Google, but that ended last year when Twitter and Google were unable to agree commercial terms to renew the deal.

Google has a competitive interest here – it wants its Google+ social network to reign supreme, so is using Realtime to drive traffic there, rather than to Twitter or arch-rival Facebook. However the competitive landscape plays out, real-time search results change the nature of search by mining huge amounts of social media and delivering to you what is deemed relevant alongside more traditional search results.


Search queries are increasingly coming from mobile devices, which alter the nature of searches. Apart from the more localised results required as outlined above, the small screen of a phone requires search results to be delivered up in more innovative ways. Here so-called “apps” are coming into play – little pieces of software that run on a smartphone and provide a more structured environment than using a simple web browser. Microsoft won plaudits for its Bing search app for the iPhone and iPad last year and for teaming up with Facebook to power search results from within Facebook. The idea then of going directly to the Google search engine for information is going out of fashion.


Google became so popular because its clever algorithms made the search process more intelligent. But there’s a limit to how valuable a search engine can be if it is analysing only the terms we ask it to search for. To be really clever, the search engine needs to know what search boffins call our “master intent” – what we really want. That involves feeding the search engine information about our behaviour, our social profile, our likes and dislikes. That has huge implications for privacy but is ultimately the way the search giants will push us in their quest to stay relevant. The search is most definitely on for a better way of googling.
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