Typing is so last century. Formulating a query to suit an algorithm to get a relevant result is a relic from last decade, and clicking on links to actually get what you wanted is a failure in user experience. Web based search engines are a result of the constraints of technology, their user experience model a relic of static HTML directories and a less responsive internet. However a lot has changed in the last few years, and both the queries and their results have changed.

Search engines have come a long way from their academic information retrieval roots. The development of information retrieval and search engines is a history of the Internet's growth and development, the behavior and expectations of users, the actions of those actively optimizing content for the algorithms, and how advances in technology change the capabilities of all parties involved in this convoluted ecosystem. Applying a business model to finding other people's content, the legacy of older media models and a range of political and legal pressures all influence how and what information is found online. It is only recently that technology companies like Google have started to respond to legislative factors by becoming more politically involved through the media and lobbying.

Search Results As A Portal

The search engine results page (SERP) is more than a list of links and descriptions. Search engines in many ways resemble portal sites more than directories for queries relating to some subject areas. From flights to products, places and more, search engines like both Bing and Google are answering more searches before the user even clicks on a link, and often from properties they themselves run, such as maps, reviews, video and image listings.

Changes in how information is organized on the SERP affect both user behavior and how sites and information are optimized for the search engines. For the user, however, it is the changes in technology that are the most obvious. Tools like Google Goggles, Shavam, voice search and Google's Search by Image demonstrate how searching the Internet is moving beyond typing a query and being tied to a desk.

Context Is King

Bing's aim to become the decision engine, and Google's goal of knowing exactly what their users mean is hard, especially if the only information available is a string of text, and a number of documents to match it with. The result was search engines effectively acting as digital Skinner boxes, using operant conditioning and a short feedback cycle to train users to structure their questions to suit the algorithm.

Now the algorithms are being taught how to learn from us, and better understand the context surrounding the queries and the answers. Social signals, better subject analysis, age of the information, personal and geographic search behavior all go beyond what is entered into the search box for answering the actual question the user has. Other data such as the device or application being used and physical location matters too.

Search As An Unseen Service

Search doesn't need to be a process or a destination. It won't be either for long. Search is a service; Google's mobile voice search and more recently Apple's Siri are early examples of what search could be like as an almost invisible interface between the user and information: online, personal and device-specific.

Google's CEO Eric Schmidt stated his belief that search will soon be automatic, and intimately tied to the individual and their behavior. There is also no reason the current players will automatically succeed in this space.

Search doesn't need to be a destination when it can be a part of the operating system. Apple's Wolfram Alpha powered Siri is probably closer to where search is heading than Google's iPad app, embedded in hardware and connected to all of our own data and tools.