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Search Heavyweights Debate What's Next - InternetNews.
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Search Heavyweights Debate What's Next

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Is Bing better than Google? Do conversations lead to better search results? Is mobile search any good?

The answers to these questions came up for debate as a panel of tech heavyweights here at the Semantic Web conference weighed in on some of the most pressing concerns facing the search space.

Some panelists found themselves put on the spot for their opinion of a competitor, Microsoft's Bing, the most recent arrival to the search scene.

In particular, Bing's user interface received a good deal of attention. While Bing uses a standard search entry bar, portions of its site use different interfaces. For instance, the travel portion, which incorporates technology from Microsoft's purchase of Farecast, starts with a reservation page.

Andrew Tomkins, chief search scientist at Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO), said it wasn't clear to him whether Bing should feature multiple interfaces for users, or a single interface, "and if that puts more burden on the search engine."

Others suggested that Bing may be moving in the right direction.

"I like the idea of innovation in user interface -- there is a lot of room for that," said Peter Norvig, director of research at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG). "I think there is too much emphasis in search of getting the ranking right, which is important, but in many cases it's not enough. These are good steps, but [search companies] need to go farther along and match [the service] to the medium. I'm usually pretty happy with the result page on my big 30-inch screen, but on my 2-inch mobile screen, I'm usually disappointed."

One way the industry is exploring ways around mobile's limitations is through voice interfaces, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated through the adoption of conversational, natural-language queries.

For instance, Siri, the forthcoming virtual assistant for the iPhone that was part of yesterday's keynote, aims to provide a wealth of information -- like nearby restaurants or movie times -- in response to questions like where the nearest Chinese restaurant might be.

But while Scott Prevost, director of Microsoft's Powerset division, said conversation is the ultimate mobile interface, he added that the idea doesn't necessarily extend to every platform.

"It's not clear I want to have a conversation with my laptop in the middle of the workday," he joked. "When people have a conversational interface, they won't speak in keywords."

"Do I have a conversation where it tells me about ten Chinese restaurants or do I see those on a tiny screen?" Prevost added.

Panel moderator Carla Thompson, senior analyst with the Guidewire Group, said changing user habits is really hard, but advances in semantic search will ultimately lead to a more conversational mode of interacting with search engines.

Though it's improving their search experience, users probably won't know anything about the semantic technology behind the scenes.

But adopting semantic technologies is an inevitable transition for the search industry, she said in a later interview with InternetNews.com.

For the time being, Thompson said there's plenty of room for improvement to the current class of search engines and even new competitors.

"On a daily basis, consumers are typing something in and not getting the results they want," she said. "They shouldn't have to know how to game the system -- it's about the computer knowing your intent and how to best present the results to you."

Pick your search engine, then pick another

Thompson said the competition doesn't need to come at Google's expense, either.

"Why do we need to kill Google? They're unquestionably the leader, but I use other tools. Lately I've found Bing useful for some things, WolframAlpha for others and Wikipedia for facts," she said.

Progress takes time, as Yahoo's Tomkins noted -- it's incredibly hard to understand what a user will like or why they like a certain search engine over another.

"You can make small changes, like mask the logo or make tiny changes to the latency or change the formatting from what they're used to, and it's very impactful," he said.

One approach Yahoo is taking with its SearchMonkey initiative is to give site owners a structured way to expose key data to Yahoo's search engine. As a result, for example, a restaurant's menu or location would have a better chance of showing up in a relevant search.

He said semantic content is key to Yahoo's effort to figuring out the task a user is trying to solve, rather than relying strictly on keywords.

He described booking a vacation as a task that's "incredibly underserved" by search engines because so many steps are required to find all the information -- like plane and hotel fares, rental car, details about the venue.

"At Yahoo, the users themselves can make changes in how the results are shown," Tomkins said. Currently, over 15,000 users are contributing to SearchMonkey. "I don't know what 15,000 people will come up with using the semantic data in search, but it will be interesting. I anticipate a lot of great stuff."

Hakia, which features a natural language interface based on semantic search technology, is in favor of the conversational idea of a search engine rather than keywords. "I think questions are important. They're how we communicate and bring results accordingly," said Riza Berkan, CEO and founder of Hakia.

While Hakia has focused on consumer search to date, Berkan said the company is working on a new service designed for enterprise users. "You can't use conventional search to find corporate documents effectively," said Berkan. "Semantics is an ideal fit for those circumstances."