Consider the common search engine and a few words might come to mind, like "clever," "essential" or "ubiquitous." If you're an advertiser or a publisher, the words "lucrative" and "too powerful" might also pop up.
I currently work in the search business at Microsoft, which means I get paid to play in one of the fastest moving high tech arenas on the planet.
Today, nearly 245 million Americans will type a search query into the small white boxes on Bing, Google, Yahoo and dozens of other popular search engines. Altogether, billions of searches are conducted across these sites every day.
Walk the halls here in Redmond, or at Google's offices in Mountain View, and you will find some of the best programmers in the world busy expanding the boundaries of search. They're constantly identifying new kinds of information, and figuring out how to deliver it to you in the most useable form, usually for free.
Curious about the new Italian restaurant downtown? Bing's combining the usual reviews with what your friends are saying about it on Facebook and how long it will take you to walk there. Trying to help your daughter with her math homework? Engines are using artificial intelligence to understand whether to deliver your answers at a 4th, 7th or 12th grade level. Down the road, another team is coming up with their own search algorithms and value proposition, looking for an opening -- a way to use search, or some future twist on search, to compete with the tech giants.
The vibe in search is kinetic. We're digging, stretching, pushing and growing. Every day, our search engines conduct more searches and cover more data. Every day, we teach ourselves how to answer your questions better and help you get things done in the real world.
This should be the golden age of search, with ever-improving search tools mining new sorts of data and delivering it to you on your phone, laptop, tablet or TV. Unfortunately, it's not, because too many of these new tools are being used to monetize your search, rather than improve how it's answered. The more a search engine allows advertisers to shape and rank its results, the less it answers the question you type into it. Truly "relevant" information gets pushed down the rankings, or displaced entirely.
"Search bias" -- what we techies call the act of letting advertisers influence your search results -- is an old problem, largely defeated in the past decade, that's making a comeback. Sites like Google rose to prominence in [2003 and 2004] by offering an objective search experience -- with better results than "paid inclusion" sites like Alta Vista. Back then, Google called paid inclusion "insidious" -- an affront to its "don't be evil" creed.
Google's approach -- and the marketing campaigns that promoted it -- worked extremely well. Paid inclusion sites faded away, and major competitors, like Yahoo and Bing, survived and prospered by maintaining a clear separation between their organic search results and the ads that paid for them.
Consumers like you didn't really have to worry whether the results you saw online were complete. (They almost always were.) Instead, a good search result was measured by what you didn't see -- by the random, unresponsive or repetitive web pages we screened. Search engines were also measured by how intuitively we ordered and presented your results: great search result had to look simple.
If trends continue, all of this will change. You see, the more sophisticated and comprehensive search tools get, the greater the opportunity to boost your profits by blurring the line between real results and ads. Like a waiter pushing the house wine, a search engine can favor its own mapping services and consumer reviews, and it can create comparison shopping sites that look like search engines but operate as infomercials.
With all the new bells and whistles, the mobile platforms and social networking add-ons, search remains a pretty simple business -- one that, ultimately, depends on trust. Trust comes from customers knowing that they come first. If someone conducts a search with you and has to worry whether he's gotten a complete response, you're going to eventually lose that customer.
And you might also do something worse: you might start discouraging real innovation. Blurring the lines between search and ads makes it harder for a good product to trump a richer one. In an ideal Internet, anyone can build a site or service, build their brand, outwork their competition and be rewarded with a top search ranking. What happens when it's not just about quality? What happens when sites can now pay money to engines to appear higher in results? Suddenly, the playing field isn't quite as level. I don't think that's healthy for consumers, or the web.
At Microsoft, we're bullish on search. We're investing more in ways to live up to the rules that made a trusted source in the first place.
We won't let who pays us for ads or other services affect what you see in your search results. Results are one thing; ads are another. We won't switch to "pay-to-rank," or block the world's most popular online shopping sites if they refuse to pay us a special fee. We won't price smaller businesses out of the online marketplace with new fees.
We understand that search is evolving, and that's why we are working hard to make sure all those new kinds of information get delivered, clearly and reliably.
Follow Stefan Weitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stefanweitz