The role of search providers has to-date been limited to discovery. A user searches for a particular term and the engine returns a selection of results. If the user selects one of these results, or better still a paid advertisement, the engine considers it has achieved its mission: discovery.
A discussion with Ran Mokady, who manages Microsoft’s Bing mobile programme, prompted some thoughts about how search providers may expand their role in the future.
From a customer perspective, there’s a value in adding intelligence to the process, allowing users to go beyond discovery and achieve the action they desire with the minimum number of steps.
Mokady cited an example relevant to the Mobile World Congress. Imagine a delegate attending MWC requests a map from Bing. Currently Bing would identify their location and show them a generic map of the area. However, in the future Bing may be able to understand a major event is currently taking place in that area, that it is called Mobile World Congress and know there is a specific PDF map issued by the show organisers with more detail on the exact layout of the show village. Bing would be able to replace its standard map view with content from the custom PDF map.
This sort of vision extends the role of the engine beyond search and discovery into action completion. Wolfram Alpha is perhaps furthest advanced with this approach, building numerous specialist action completion engines on top of its core search.
There are some distinct aspects to Microsoft’s approach, most notably around privacy. Mokady believes Microsoft could achieve most of its vision by analysing anonymised user behaviour within certain segments. For instance, the decision to deliver the more detailed MWC map may come from recognising the last 100 users located in Barcelona who searched for a map clicked first on the PDF from the organisers of MWC.
None of the users private data would be required to make this decision.
This is distinct from Google, which will use information contained within your email and other applications to deliver more relevant results to users who are signed into their Google account. Microsoft is not ruling out this approach, but believes it could offer a different customer experience by making the transparency and ease of control over privacy choices a major feature its products.
Bing is an interesting part of Microsoft’s business and currently operates with a degree of autonomy from the Windows Phone operation. Bing is available on multiple platforms, including iPhone, and – in fact – the iPhone experience currently offers a wider feature set than Bing on Windows Phone.