Engines of change – reflections on James Murray’s Benchmark ’16 talk ‘The Future of Search Decoded’
In the first of a series of analyses from the Benchmark Search Conference 2016, we look at Microsoft’s James Murray as he discusses what lies in store for search in the future
Murray proved to be quite the opener for this year’s conference, setting the bar extremely high for all those who followed. His talk, really, can be divided into two sections – the first two thirds were made up of some fantastic insight into possible future developments, while the final third treated us to some jaw dropping demonstrations of current software.
Thinking outside of the box took on a literal meaning, with Murray’s talk detailing the inevitable move away from the traditional search box toward an integrated world where our AI PAs are our gateway to information. From Cortana to SIRI and all in between, these electronic assistants are facilitating a move toward an increasing reliance on voice search in addition to rapidly becoming capable of inference.
Weather searches, for example, are shown over the last three decades, with lists of forecast sites representing the ‘90’s search term ‘weather’, an in-SERPs forecast for the ‘00’s for a search ‘london weather’, while the response to a voice search ‘do I need an umbrella tomorrow’ shows a location specific weather report for the following day. The difference is one most of us have lived through – and it is probably the incremental nature of technological advances that robs us of the wonder except in retrospect – the journey from what is clearly a total reliance on keywords to such a high degree of specificity from inference is astonishing, yet taken entirely for granted.
It is no wonder, however, that such dedication is being devoted to the ability to infer the intentions of consumers. Quoting an internet trends report, Murray relayed that a predicted 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020. For obvious reasons, therefore, the advice Murray offered to search marketers today was:
- Use broad match for your keyword targeting
- Add question keywords
- Consider your prepositions
All of this is, of course, to further help to capture the intention signals of natural language searches. As natural language searches increase and the longtail becomes more and more important, everything from paid search to landing page copy will need to change along with it.
The final third showed some of the current recognition abilities of AI – with the first of two case studies detailing Murray’s own struggles with Mandarin translation for a wedding speech and comparing it with the real time translation abilities of the Skype application. While Murray strived for three months to master his speech as a sign of respect to his wife’s Mandarin speaking parents, Skype can now conduct a live translation of conversations in a host of different languages.
This has some striking implications on a linguistic level – regarding the stability of native languages, possibly counteracting a widely predicted move toward the evolution of various hybrid languages (such as Spanglish) as instantaneous translation becomes standard. However, it also paves the way for a more organic approach to multinational and multi-lingual search as, with increasing proficiency in translation from AIs, comes an opening up of the web to nationalities and language speakers beyond those for whom content is initially written or produced.
Following this was possibly the most inspirational moment of the conference, as the interpretative power of AI was shown acting as a new sensory input for the blind, with ‘captionbot.ai’ increasingly capable of describing its surroundings to a blind user. As these abilities grow (and Murray assured us there is a Microsoft team briefed with categorising and describing everything [no pressure]), the possibilities for AR and VR are limitless – not to mention the possibilities for advanced local advertising as AI begins to offer a ‘recommended’ list based on recognised daily activities with feedback from wearables and various lifestyle aps.
It was great to see Murray return for his second Benchmark talk, and also to see such a high standard set, with this first talk, for the rest of the conference.
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