The future of search is not world domination
In this frank, exclusive interview with Microsoft's director of Bing, Pamela Whitby hears how search could soon meet science fiction
Microsoft’s Bing may have started out as search engine in the same boxing ring as Google but it has – because of or, perhaps, in spite of - decided to change tack. Let’s face it competing against Google isn’t easy.
Microsoft’s director of search, Stefan Weitz, seems reconciled to the fact that today Bing is probably not the place people are going to go to first to ‘search’ but he doesn't seem terribly bothered. That’s because he believes that the world of search will soon be unrecognisable – and anyway it’s much better, and more sustainable, he says, to let many flowers bloom.
EFT: You say that Bing has evolved a lot in recent years. Some would say that is because you can’t compete with Google. What do you make of that view?
SW: Bing began as a decision-making search engine and yes it has evolved a lot. The main thing is that, unlike Google, we are not trying to make folks come to Bing anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love folks to come to Bing.com. It would be great but I am also a realist. That said the reality is also that many people are using devices that Google doesn't control. Sure there are a lot of Android devices out there, there is no question. But we just don’t think that we have to draw people in, we think it makes more sense to make experiences better in the places where people are.
EFT: So how are you doing this?
SW: We are looking at how people are using their devices, how are they using the web, how are they trying to get things done in the real world. By harnessing this massive search infrastructure, we have built tools and systems that allow people to take real action in the real world beyond just reading information somewhere on the web. So we had a travel product out there that really helped people understand all their options from getting from A-B. Kayak [Bing Travel and Kayak announced a partnership in 2011] does that now which is great. We also did a lot of work around understanding the real world [and in particular how consumers were using social media].
EFT: What’s the biggest change you have made to Bing?
SW: The biggest change that you can see is that we are taking Bing outside of bing.com. Bing.com is great but the reality is that people aren’t doing searches from desktop browsers anymore – they are using tablets, smartphones, applications, televisions and so on. So what we are doing inside of Bing is trying to put its functionality and capability into the places where people are, in the devices they are using. Today we power search on Facebook, we power search on all the different Bing applications on Window 8.1. We power the XBox one, Windows Phone - and its Local Scout functionality. We power Siri and Kindle. So people may say that they never use Bing but if they use any of those devices, chances are they have. We are looking at how we can go to where people are versus making them come to our own property and site. That’s a big change from what Google is doing in the space. It’s not just about punching something in and getting a bunch of links back. That’s an out-dated model.
EFT: Give me an example of why this is relevant in the travel space?
SW: If you look at the travel app on windows 8.1 look what it does. It helps you find great flights and hotels and it helps you get that from the huge range of sources we have worked with including TripAdvisor, Frommers and so on. If you want to see the place you are going we have built in this 360-degree panoramic solution, which on a tablet is like looking through a window. You can see views of 100,000s of places around the world. This is an amazing example of how you can take all those pieces of the web and all those pieces of search – be these reviews, photos, video content or user generated content - and wrap it into an experience that makes sense for what you are trying to do: namely research and book a flight. Think about how hard it is to do that by researching. You have to go to countless websites or different tools and you may never even find a panorama. Local Scout is another: open phone, hit a button: it know where you are, who you are, what your searches are, what your friends are checking into, what the public is like, where the good deals are. In a few milliseconds it pulls together the things you like and why we think you are going to like them. The bottom line is that it is using all those social signals and real world signals to help the person in the real world while they are travelling.
EFT: Unlike Google, Bing has actively formed partnerships with various social networks and even travel review sites like TripAdvisor? What’s the rationale behind this move?
SW: When you think about the data we get in from social partners whether it is Facebook or Twitter or Klout or Linkedin or all those, it’s really significant. The ability for us to pull back people, who could be as important as a web page, into a search query was a big differentiator. Nobody else is doing that. We have a deal with Facebook, Foursquare Klout - all the different social networks that are out there and more. And we pull their feeds into our index. Why that’s important is that if you are searching for hotel in Hawaii, or a great place to go eat in Chile, for example, is that if any or your friends have talked about that on those networks, or if anybody who is an expert has mentioned, then we pull that data into the right hand side of the page.
EFT: But isn’t Google doing something similar with Google+?
SW: It’s interesting right. As long as you want to live in a Google ecosystem, if you want to have all your social interactions on Google+, all your photographs in Picasa – if you want to live in that space - then yes you can get some of that. But the reality is that not all people live there. There are about 10x the number people on Facebook than there are on Google+ and the engagement times are 10x that. Google’s goal is to collect as much information as possible and when they can’t collect it they want to buy it. They want to keep you inside the casino. All the magic works if you’re on Google, if you live in that space – that’s is great if that’s what you do.
EFT: The Google model clearly works for them and they’re still a force to be reckoned with….
SW: Sure that [keeping people in the casino] is easier to do because you control all the data, schemas and so. So you can innovate really quickly on your own data sites. But what we think is that you can’t buy all the innovation on the web. And we think it makes more sense to embrace the power of what the web was designed to do which was to allow many flowers to bloom and then to work with those different people and different sites to incorporate their functionality, their information and their services into a response that makes sense. It is a far more sustainable model because eventually you’ll just run out of money. It is also a far healthier model for the Internet because right now Google walks into a market and suddenly the other players are like ‘gosh’ I can’t compete with that. Then what happens to innovation long term? You can’t have all the innovation coming out of one company. It just doesn't make any sense. We are looking at the broader web which search engines haven’t been very good at.
EFT: Looking into the crystal ball, what is the future of search?
SW: It’s hard to get your head around all the capabilities of search and what search will look like because it is no longer what we think it’s going to be. It is no longer that text box with a bunch of links. That has a profound impact for offers, service providers and travel agents, and anybody else, as we begin to create higher value scenarios than just a bunch of links on a page. The change is coming and it’s not ten years way, it’s probably not even five years away.
EFT: So how will the world of search look less than five years from now?
SW: The notion of you saying “I am going to go ‘Google that’ or ‘Bing that’ or ‘search that’ is going to sound as funny as you saying, ‘I’m going to go get online’”. Now we [well us in the West] assume we’re always online. Search will be integrated into what you’re doing. So if you are writing a document, search will be there helping you, if you are planning a trip it will be there to offer assistance – in situ and in the context of what your are doing. We think search will augment your abilities and give you super powers in the way that we have only dreamt of in science fiction until now.
EFT: How far away is Bing from this?
SW: We are working towards it and we are in pretty good shape. Already in Word we have Bing images built in. If you are typing in Word and you want a picture for say a Tony Hawk skateboard, for example, you’ll get all the licensed images back so you can use them without having to pay for them. That happens today. It’s still pretty explicit but the pieces are coming together. We have the technology, we have the audience and we have the data to start creating those smarter experiences.
EFT: And your last word?
SW: Put it this way, I work with start-ups every day and I have never in my life seen what I am seeing today innovation wise. It strikes me that the web is too big for any one person to own, and it is too big for anyone company to dominate. Okay, so they can dominate but they are not going to give the customer as good an experience as if they partner, nurture and cultivate others, and then work with those people, or companies doing amazing things. But by using our power to understand what the user is trying to do and then stitching that user intent together with a bunch of services content or whatever from across the web - that we don’t own - that’s a much better idea. It’s a much more sustainable model that will allow innovation to truly flourish.