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The Future of Web Search

Leslie Walker and Udi Manber
.com Columnist and A9.com CEO
Thursday, April 7, 2005; 1:00 PM

Leslie Walker hosted an online discussion about the future of Web search with Udi Manber, the CEO of A9.com -- the Amazon.com entry into the crowded online search market.

A transcript of the discussion is below:

Leslie Walker (The Post)


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Leslie Walker: Hello everyone. We're holding a live Web chat today with A9's Udi Manber at 1 p.m. ET.

Manber is an Internet veteran, having worked as a chief scientist for Yahoo before starting A9.com in 2003. He also taught computer science at the University of Wisconsin and University of Arizona, and wrote a book with an intimidating title: "Introduction to Algorithms: A Creative Approach."

Now Manber is bringing a "creative approach" to Web search. For folks unfamiliar with A9, it is a search engine owned by Amazon.com that uses Google to deliver its underlying Web search results. But A9 adds various personalized extras to how users conduct searches and see results. A few things A9 lets users do:

* store and search your personal Web browsing and search history

* save and edit bookmarks online for access from any computer

* jot notes about sites in a personal diary

* get recommendations of sites A9 thinks you might enjoy

Stop by at 1 p.m. and ask Udi Manber where Web search is heading !

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Leslie Walker: Hello out there! A big welcome to all our readers and to Udi Manber for agreeing to answer your questions. Let's get started.

At Esther Dyson's technology conference last month, you said the way to improve Web search is to give users more advanced tools, not to develop automated software or "black boxes" that anticipate what people might want. "But they have to think," you added.

"They can't expect someone to read their mind. We are not in the mind-reading business."

So what kind of tools might fit the bill of improving Web search without creating mysterious black boxes?

Udi Manber: Thank you very much for inviting me!

The question was whether search engines should show different results to different users based on what they know about those users. I am very reluctant to go that way because I am generally leery of "black boxes" that "know me" and make decisions for me without my knowledge. People are not one dimensional, especially when they search. If I am a doctor it doesn't mean that when I search for sports I care mostly about injuries. If I am a lawyer and I search for music I am not necessarily looking for artists suing one another. And so on. How often do you find yourself wanting to tell your computer "shut up and just listen to me!". I prefer to give users more ways to navigate the results and make their own decisions. The main paradigm we have today is

Enter a few words

Get a list of results

Repeat

The advanced tools I was talking about are about improving this interaction. I prefer to first make those tools explicit before I try to make them automatic and invisible. One day we might be able to understand users' needs automatically, and there is a lot of good work being done in this area.

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Washington, D.C.: How is A9 going to make money?

Udi Manber: We currently make money from Sponsored Links that are clearly marked and included within our search results. In addition, our goal is to develop new innovative search technologies that we will license to other companies.

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Tyler, Tex.: I use A9 for historical bits and pieces in a novel underway two years now. My question is how does one cut the clutter? I am not interested in Aunt Mary's thoughts on Battle of Hastings unless she is eyewitness source. I am not interested in knowing that eBay is now selling the battle of Hastings. I am not interested in Hastings Kansas pop.430.

In trying to be "search friendly," the search engines are in danger of becoming foolish. Why not a self-grade code entered by a searcher, that asks the search to limit clutter and commercial self-promotion and close but not close-at-all entries?

Udi Manber: Thank you for using A9! How to navigate through clutter is absolutely one of the most important problems in search. But one person's clutter is another person's treasure. If you enter one or two words into a search box it's hard to know what you want. We need to provide better ways for you to specify that you are looking for a place rather than a historical battle or things to buy, and we need better algorithms to be able to classify documents to know whether they are about a place or a battle. Both are being improved all the time.

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Annapolis, Md.: Is fostering a sense of community, or social bonds between users, a goal for A9?

Or do you envision search remaining a solitary activity?

Udi Manber: I am a strong believer in developing communities on the web. In fact, the web is what it is today mostly because communities were encouraged right from the beginning. One example of what we are doing in this area is our OpenSearch initiative, where we allow anyone to publish and syndicate search results though an extension to RSS. As a result, more than a hundred different search columns were added by users to A9, and every user can select any one of them as part of their search results.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: In the online travel segment, airlines see potential for travel search to help reduce distribution costs by delivering online customers who shop around directly to the supplier web site. How do you see the growth of search technology affecting this business arena?

Udi Manber: I think most information-based businesses are already significantly affected by the web and this trend will intensify. The web provides a way to connect people together and to connect businesses to people directly and extremely efficiently. Removing friction is always a trigger for more business and for better business. The key will be to provide better service to users so it will lead at the end to more convenience and better prices.

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Leslie Walker: Hmm.....I don't get how your new OpenSearch feature fosters "community." Can you explain? I thought it basically just let users add special vertical or site-specific searches to their A9 service.

Udi Manber: I gave it as an example of things we do that depend on the community and allow community participation. This is a first step. There are a lot more things to do, and this is still very early. I do agree with the sentiment that we want to allow people to collaborate and help one another.

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Herndon, Va.: What is the key advantage to using A9 vs. Google? Is it primarily the ability to store and bookmark results vs. a different approach to searching?

Udi Manber: There are two major areas that we do differently. First, we provide search results from many different sources and allow users to select. These sources include Search Inside the Book, Movies, Reference, medical information and with OpenSearch more than a 100 other sources. The second and more important is that we help users not only search but also manage and organize their information to make it more effective. For example, if you install our toolbar, we provide server-side bookmarks, diary, and history and you can search for them at any time. You can take a note about a particular web site while you visit it and find that note 4 months later. When you search on A9 we include with the results the last time you clicked on them, and whether or not you ever saw a particular result in the past, so if you do the same search a year later you will know what you already saw. In a small sense, this is an extension of your memory.

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Newburgh, N.Y.:

Some concerns have been raised regarding A9's use of Amazon's customers' preferences & related data. Aren't you concerned that A9 might be misused as a "data miner"? And how would you address such issues as privacy of personal data like the 'search history' option?

Udi Manber: We take privacy very seriously. Our approach is to make everything transparent and clear to the users. On the toolbar, when we collect history, it says "history on" and one click turns it into "history off". We collect that history, as I described in the previous question, to allow users to search for it in the future. Déjà vu can be very helpful. This is the only reason we provide this feature. Users can also delete their history or any part of it at any time.

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Lorie in Bethesda, Md.: Unfortunately I haven't used A9.com yet, but I will check it out this afternoon!

90% of my time at my job is spent doing web research--I've become a "brown belt", if you will, in finding even the most remote information. My boss assigns me a task, and I always go to the web first.

My question ties in with Tyler's from TX. How do you foresee A9.com filtering out the unwanted pages? For instance: I'm searching for bead websites, that sell beads for jewelry making. If I put too many descriptive words in the search engine, then I get less results of what I'm looking for. But if I just put beads in, then I get tons of exactly what I don't want, like porn websites. Will there eventually be a new way of classifying web pages? like shopping, education, information, etc... I'm sure they're classified somewhat now, but will this improve soon?

Udi Manber: As I said in the introduction, I think one answer is to provide better ways to navigate and not only search. You should be able to give hints about the type of things you are looking for in addition to just keywords. Unfortunately, this is not easy to do, both for users and for the engines, but everyone is working on that.

Regarding research on the web, let me point you to our diary feature that comes with the toolbar. It is a great research tool. It allows you to easily take notes while you're surfing and easily get to them later. For example, when I plan a vacation, I add diary notes to all the accommodations, attractions, etc that I consider, and when I have to cancel that vacation because I have too much work I can come back a month later and it's all there. Same thing with our server-side bookmarks that I can access while I am on vacation (or when I am at a friend's house).

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Leslie Walker: Please peer into your crystal ball and tell us some things you see coming down the pike in Web search. Any big trends? Innovations?

Udi Manber: I don't have a crystal ball (and I can't find one searching anywhere..). But seriously, things move very fast, and innovations happen "at the moment" and they see the light of day shortly afterwards. That's what is so great about the web - you can make an impact almost immediately and not have to wait 3-5 years to develop a new product. We are working on some new innovative products (which we will announce when they are ready), and we hope to invent more and more. I have been working on search for 15 years now, and every 5 years it seems like science fiction. I bet this will continue. This is a great time to work on search!

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Fairfax, Va.: Does A9 plan to develop tools to search the "deep web" or "hidden web"?

Bernard Ferret, CEO

SearchAvenue.com

Udi Manber: Yes, and we have done some of it already. With Search Inside the Book we provided search access to hundreds of thousands of books, which never existed before. With our Yellow Pages, we collected millions of pictures of businesses allover the country, allowing people to find a business even if they don't know its name by virtually walking down the street. Again, this is information that did not exist in this form before.

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Leslie Walker: We have run out of time and are wrapping up today's live chat.

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Leslie Walker: That's it for today, folks. Sorry we could not get to all your questions. Thanks to everyone who participated, and to Udi Manber for joining us from California. We hope to have him back in the future.

Bye for now!

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