Digital Essays: Where next for search?

Social search takes advantage of other people's acquired knowledge and previous experiences.

It is universally acknowledged that search engines have become central to today's knowledge economy, a notion undisputed by Gartner in its report on the current "Web-centric Knowledge Society" in February of this year.

Yahoo!'s vision has long been to take this concept further, to deliver a more relevant and satisfying search experience through social search.

In other words, to provide better search through people - combining what people know with web-search technology.

Collective sharing is arguably the next chapter of the web, with the user turning publisher. Barriers to entry for content creation on the web are constantly being lowered and new technologies are allowing people to create, develop, produce, market and sell content in ways previously unimaginable.

Flickr is an excellent example of collective sharing in action - originally created by fewer than ten people, it now has millions of participants and is made up entirely of user-generated, organised and distributed content as well as functionality that allows developers to build applications on top of the Flickr platform.

The bulk of relevant human know-ledge - particularly the community-based knowledge that is highly valued by individual searchers - still resides with people and not in mathematical algorithms. Today, search breakthroughs will come from rich new sources of metadata and user-generated content.

The collective knowledge in a user's community will become the driver for more relevant search results.

When searching for restaurants, for example, friends should be able to poll each other's collected knowledge of information - either via tags and other metadata attached to websites by users, or through direct engagement with other users in a search environment. Released this month, Yahoo!

Answers is a social search experience, complementing algorithmic search by delivering real-life answers in an engaging environment.

Social search takes advantage of other people's acquired knowledge and experiences in previously locating and experiencing the same information.

Therefore, search results are more relevant based on the previous work of others.

So what are the implications of the rise in social search for marketers and for the advertising industry?

The rise in communities and group wisdom has an important impact on marketing because it breeds an experience-based culture. Consumers are no longer solely influenced by tangible factors such as price and features. Although social media appears to be largely a separate entity at present, going forward, the best sites will find ways to weave social media into their core, creating powerful communities.

In essence, social media offers brands an opportunity to engage with customers - and elements of social search products will provide this opportunity in the future.

Another key area of focus for online marketers this year will be to fully integrate online campaigns with each other and into the rest of the mix.

Increasingly, search marketers are looking at the use of search marketing for branding purposes and to drive purchases offline: marketers now appear to be taking a more holistic view of search and looking at how it can complement other campaigns across different forms of marketing. For example, if you are a low-cost airline embarking on a big-budget TV campaign, can you be sure people will remember the website flashed up at the end of your ad?

Research recently carried out by Yahoo! Search Marketing in France indicates that consumers often remember the ad, but forget the exact web address, then turn to internet search to find out more. More than eight out of ten users habitually use a search engine after having partially remembered site addresses.

Additional global research by Isobar and Yahoo! reflects this. Entitled Fluid Lives, the global study showed that offline media often prompts people to go online - and moreover, more and more people are going online while engaging in offline media. More than half of the respondents to our survey spent time online while watching TV, to find out more information about what they're watching and simply to multitask.

So, if your website is not listed high in the search results for "cheap flight" at the peak of your TV ad campaign, imagine the number of consumers you're letting slip through your fingers. Furthermore, it could actually have a negative effect on your brand. Our research in France found that having seen an advertisement offline, if a user could not find the advertiser's website through search, this had a negative effect on the user's perception of the brand in more than one in three cases. Proof indeed of the importance of search in any advertising campaign.

- Stephen Taylor is the regional vice-president of Yahoo! and Yahoo! Search Marketing, Europe.