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Page last updated at 17:19 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 18:19 UK

The search engines of the future

By Ian Hardy
Click reporter, Silicon Valley

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee believes search is still in its infancy

If you want to find something out these days, one of the first things you will do is type words into a box on the webpages of a search engine.

The result will be an avalanche of websites which contain the words you are looking for, hopefully with the most useful ones at the top of the list.

For much of the past two decades, search results have been triggered by straightforward keyword connections.

It has been an adequate solution, but it is far from perfect says Mike Elgan, a columnist at Computerworld.com.

"Human beings view the world in terms of associations - a classic example in the scientific community is when you say the sentence 'I saw a bird with a telescope'.

"Human beings instantly know it was you not the bird that was using the telescope. But computers don't know that," he said.

Human understanding

Search engines have never really understood the precise meaning or true intent of questions or phrases - semantic search is a process trying to improve this.

A new generation of web services is in development to offer results for words and picture searches, and attempt to understand users' questions.

The idea is for people to be able to scan it and find interesting things more like a magazine
Anand Rajaraman,
co-founder of Kosmix

Kosmix is one of a new batch of search engines trying to incorporate human understanding into its complex mathematical computations.

Anand Rajaraman, co-founder of Kosmix, said the site's goal is to encourage a kind of "serendipity" by displaying information in a visual way.

"The idea is for people to be able to scan it and find interesting things more like a magazine.

"You know how you are scanning a magazine and suddenly something catches your eye serendipitously," he said.

'Exciting work'

Bing is the latest reincarnation of Windows Live Search and MSN Search which have never been as popular as Yahoo or Google.

To improve it Microsoft bought semantic search company Powerset that uses updated methods to produce their results.

Scott Prevost from Powerset told Click that despite advances, the problems of natural language are not even close to being solved.

"There's a lot of exciting work that will happen particularly in the next five to 10 years," he said.

Kosmix is trying to incorporate human understanding into searches

Also, increasingly search is moving beyond desktops. One recent survey in the US showed the number of search apps downloaded to mobile phones in the past year has doubled.

While a third more searches are being done on mobile web browsers - many devices have GPS and a constant stream of updated information.

Voice search

A search engine of the future will not just return a list of restaurants, for instance, but it will know you are inside a car, what time of day it is, and the traffic conditions.

So when you get to the restaurant, it will be able to guide you to the nearest parking space, and tell you what specific lunch specials are on the menu that day.

But typing on the go can be dangerous and even illegal in some places, so the physical way we search may change over time.

Scott Prevost, from Powerset said that as speech recognition improves, voice input will start to appear more in mobile phone searches.

"With a mobile device it's easier to say what you want rather than type some keywords," he said.

"People speak in short simple sentences when they know there is a speech recognizer listening to them," he added.

Microsoft's Bing uses semantic search company Powerset

It is a long way from the search engines of the 1990s which were not smart enough to generalise. Often they could only find something if you knew exactly what you were looking for, sometimes down to the exact filename.

Make connections

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, believes search is still in its infancy and that semantics is key to a more powerful internet.

He said it all comes down to the ability to make connections.

"The thing explodes when somebody has the creativity to look at a piece of data that was put there for one reason and realizes that they can connect it with something else".

He added that, for example, someone could "realise something about global warming because we've managed to get all of the data out there."

There is a race going on between the established players and the young startups to take search to the next level.

All are aiming to make it highly personalized, intuitive and more integrated into our lives.

Perhaps one day search engines will deliver the most suitable result you were looking for every time.

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