Google recently announced the beta version of Google Accelerator — “an application,” in Google's own words, “that uses the power of Google's global computer network to make Web pages load faster.”
Meanwhile, Google offers e-mail. Google, and soon other search services, has extended search advertising possibilities onto Web sites themselves. And Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves and MSN all offer desktop search.
What happened to the old-fashioned Internet search engine? Well, nothing — it's doing just fine. But it's clear that the world of search has expanded into new terrain. Now you can talk about “search” without referring to search engines at all.
And so for many reasons, it behooves us all to figure out what the world of search is. Because if we don't figure that out, how can we decide where it is search will take us?
Our definition? Here goes: Search is the area of services that knows the specific thing you want to do, learn or see, with a great amount of precision. It brings you the best possible resource or resources you need to accomplish that goal, out of an otherwise unmanageable bevy of choices. And it does it very, very quickly.
For the rest of this article, we'll elaborate.
General to specific: What do you do when you search? You watch television. You listen to radio. You read print media. The Internet is the only mass medium that you visit. What does that mean?
Think of a visit in the offline world. If you visit your aunt in Chicago, it means that of all the people whom you can see in Chicago, you're focusing that time and attention on your aunt. You're choosing to take one action, or to have one interaction, from a sea of other possible ones.
“Visiting” on the Web is no different. In a world that offers more Web pages than there are people, and in which the difference among hundreds of Web sites might boil down to nuance, going to any one site is a matter of choosing the exact site you want to see.
That understanding is what lies at the heart of search. Search engines are what can guide you to the best site, or few sites, that will let you do what you want to do on the Internet, out of all the possibilities there are. So search engines are gateways from the confusion of billions of possibilities to the precision of just the right site, or even just the right page on that site. They're about going from general and fairly useless to specific and highly useful.
Search engines aren't the only sites used for this purpose. Many visitors use Web sites that aren't search-based at all as a way to get to other sites that are more, or differently, useful.
Take the example of a dog owner who visits a site offering general pet information. She might be looking for the information that site offers — which is to say, she might be taking the site at its “face value.”
But she might have come to the site hoping to find a link to a quality online dog food store. If she finds the link she wants, she'll go to that other site. Or she might have come to the site for its general information, learned about the dog food site and proceeded to that other site. Or she might have come to an online bird store, looking for food for her bird, and learned about a dog food site from the bird site.
In any of these examples, the visitor uses the information she learned on one site to reach a different, targeted one. If that sounds to you like the way search engines work, it is. This is why contextual search ad products, like Google's AdSense or Gmail ads, have a place in search: They're yet another way of using one site to help you determine where to go next, as a way to accomplish a very specific thing (like buying dog food).
It's good to be connected.
People use search engines to get to a Web site right now. If they wanted to take more time to find a site, they might not need the search engines to begin with. Put differently, whether it's through the Internet or through your desktop, search operates through the dual capacities of interconnectedness and speed.
In the organic search engine results (the results that the engines provide), that means that engines quickly produce links to the kind of sites that searchers are looking for. For instance, it's usually quicker to look up a question starting from a search engine than it is starting with an offline encyclopedia.
In terms of search marketing, this means having the freedom of advertising that doesn't require much memory, and that ad viewers will act on (or ignore) right away. TV ads work only if your audience remembers who you are (if only subconsciously). Search ads work (or fail) within seconds.
They know what you want. What really makes search different is its ability to offer what it does by knowing what people want to see. Of course, that's the basis of search engines, which specialize in understanding both what Web searchers are looking for and what the Web has to offer.
But it's also the basis of contextual and e-mail ads, which use search companies' ability to evaluate what you're looking at now to suggest other sites you might want to look at (based on the premise that you're likely visiting a site because its topic interests you).
For instance, despite their similarities, print ads aren't a part of search, but e-mail and contextual ads are. One reason is that a magazine print ad is guessing that a given magazine reader will be interested in the kind of thing the ad is trying to sell. In a search ad, the search company already has determined, to a high degree of accuracy, who's looking at a space where an ad could go, and why. Most of the guesswork falls away.
And, as we discussed last week, search engines will continually get better at understanding who you are and what you want to see — so this feature of search will continue to grow.
Agree or disagree with our points here, what is clear is that defining search will be one of the most crucial issues for the near future, for all of us in the search world — search engine companies, advertisers and search marketers alike. Because while search engines are here to stay, the borders of search are expanding all the time. So now is the time to start a discussion, when the gray areas are relatively new.