Re-Thinking the Search Engine

In this interview with Microsoft’s Scott Prevost, Scott goes under the hood, to explain the thinking that went into the notion of a Decision Engine, instead of simply a search engine, and gives five tips for new search startups.

When looking to travel, I use for quick information about destinations. I’m a sucker for Fodors, having become used to the well-organized information in their hard-copy travel guides. In addition to Fodors’ “top picks,” I also use Trip Advisor’s recommendations.

However, not once have I booked a hotel room on For hotel rooms, I like to do a general web search to find the best deal. Bing has become my first stop. What a pleasant way to start my search. Have you seen today’s photograph? For flight bookings, I used to access Expedia and similar sites, but now that Microsoft Bing has made it easy and quick, and most importantly cheap, through the integration of its Farecast technology, I’ve become a Bing Travel fan.

However, I still go to at least two sites, if not more, when looking to travel. My question to Scott, “How does a general purpose search engine co-exist with vertical sites, both useful to me individually, and yet drive me nuts separately, because it takes me longer to get things done.

Scott answers this simply. “Bing adds value by aggregating different pieces of information, by pulling together related tasks, based on an understanding of user intent or search purpose. This helps users accomplish tasks sooner. For example, many travel reservation sites do not have detailed information about destinations and their attractions. But, Bing Travel pulls the various pieces together such as information about destinations and the ability to transact, giving users a friction-free user experience.” Scott does believe that general search engines must include vertical elements if they are to help users get things done. And, they are best-positioned to do so because of their deep investments in information retrieval technologies.

While “relevance” is still an important metric for any search engine, Bing wants to up the ante on what search engine results should do for the user, besides deliver a list of blue hyperlinks.  Speed is one of those areas.  Scott says  the speed at which search engine results pages render (another attribute touted by search engines as a differentiating advantage),  is not nearly as important as the speed at which users accomplish tasks. Scott asks, “How many steps does it take you to get something done on a search engine? How many links do you click on? This is where one of the features developed by the Powerset team helps.”

The “Hover Preview” in Bing’s search engine results pages allows users to get quick glimpse of web pages; users can judge whether it is worth the time to click on the particular blue link. In the words of Mark Johnson, Lead Program Manager, “There’s a lot of information we could pack into the search engine results page, but that makes the page cluttered and complicated. The hover preview is an elegant user interface innovation that allows us to pack more information on the page without disrupting the user.  More information means better informed clicks and faster solutions for customers.” And if you thought that snippets, the paragraph of text and links that appear with each hyperlink on a search engine results page, were mundane, think again. These snippets or captions are another powerful way to help users save time with their searches. In Mark’s words, “Snippets have the difficult job of summarizing why the target page matched your query in less than two lines. In 2010 expect snippets to get a lot better, but I hope you won’t even notice: you’ll just find yourself clicking on the right result to help you find information faster.”

Microsoft Bing Hover Preview

Bing’s Reference Answers also help users reduce clicks. By showing as the top result, key facts for a wide range of people, places and things, Reference Answers can help users complete their task, in some cases, with no clicks at all. These answers appear for broad topic queries (such as “Leonardo da Vinci”), for more refined queries (“blue velvet actors”), and for queries requesting specific pieces of information (“population of California”).

Tom Bogart, Senior Program Manager, explained some of the challenges in building Reference Answers. “Given the volume of data available on the web, and the millions of ways users can express even the simplest queries, it’s a tall order to concisely package the best information into one Answer. And since this Answer is in many cases the first result users will see, we need to get it right.” In the coming months, the team is planning to expand Bing’s coverage of Reference Answers, to domains beyond reference. “Showcasing the best web pages for your query will always be any search engine’s most important job,” says Tom, “but if we can also deliver you direct information, when you want it, we can really improve your search experience.”

Microsoft Bing Instant Answers

I asked Scott about game changers in search. Task accomplishment was top on his list. In his words, “The goal is to help users accomplish tasks better, faster, cheaper by understanding their search intent. It’s that simple.” This was what Powerset excelled at and what Scott continues to refine. This also involves moving beyond analyzing a single query to analyzing user sessions, to help anticipate a user’s next move based on an understanding of their intent, and serving them information that will help them accomplish that next task.

Another interesting area Scott mentioned, is information extraction. Say a query asks for "Microsoft Acquisitions." How can relevant text be extracted from the hundreds of thousands of pages on the web to give the user instant answers, perhaps a timeline of acquisitions with the name of the acquired company?

Scott also talked about the potential for the integration of real-time search as well as its challenges. Say a user searched for information about a product. Real-time search can provide extremely timely information if a manufacturer had just tweeted about the recall of the product. But this type of opportunity also brings its challenges. How do you know which tweet is credible and which one is not?

Bing is hiring

Watch this Video for 5 Tips for Search Startups from Scott Prevost, Principal Development Manager, Microsoft Powerset R&D


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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.