With Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web turning 20 years old this month (not quite old enough to drink in the US, but close!), is it time to re-examine how we handle search on the Internet and take it in bold new directions? University of Washington professor of computer science and engineering Oren Etzioni thinks so, and addresses this notion in a recent (and possibly controversial) paper, Search Needs a Shake-Up, published in the most recent issue of the journal Nature.
“Despite all the talent and the data that [today’s leading search engines] have, I don’t think that they’ve been ambitious enough,” says Etzioni. “This piece is meant to provoke people, to challenge them to go further, to think outside the keyword search box.”
Fundamentally, the way that current search engines operate isn’t dramatically different from how they operated when they first started showing up over the past two decades. You enter a few keywords, and the search engine will spit out results that it determines are related to those keywords and that its developers hope will keep you — the human being on the other end — satisfied with these results, and them — the smart people in charge of how these answers are formulated — gainfully employed. But the main problem, argues Etzioni, is that our constantly mobile world will be more demanding of relevant information and less forgiving of how such information is retrieved.
Etzioni elaborates: “More and more, we’re going to be accessing the Web through mobile devices with tiny screens. As you do more and more of that, it becomes harder and harder to type in keywords and see long lists of blue links. People are going to be clamoring for more intelligent search and a more streamlined process of asking questions and getting answers.”
A search engine of the future should be more than a trained monkey that knows how to find strings of text — it should be able to intelligently discern the connections between what’s being sought after and pertinent entities — such as people, places, and things — for a more sharply relevant series of results. Etzioni directs University of Washington’s Turing Center, and this is its goal. ReVerb is an open source tool developed by the Turing Center that Etzioni sees as “an important first step” toward this goal, but he concedes that the journey ahead is still a long one. He hopes that Search Needs a Shake-Up will inspire search developers into action to undertake this journey sooner than later.