BBC: Search Is a Backwater

September 27, 2008

I just read a quite remarkable essay by a gentleman named Richard Titus, Controller, User Experience & Design for BBC Future Media & Technology. (I like the word controller.) I am still confused by the time zone zipping I have experienced in the past seven days. At this moment in time, I don’t recall if I have met Mr. Titus or if I have read other writings by him. What struck me is that he was a keynote at a BBC Future Media & Technology Conference. My first reaction is that to learn the future a prestigious organization like the BBC might have turned toward the non-BBC world. The Beeb disagreed and looked for its staff to illuminate the gloomy passages of Christmas Yet to Come. You can read this essay “Search and Content Discovery” here. In fact, you must read it.

With enthusiasm I read the essay. Several points flew from the page directly into the dead letter office of my addled goose brain. There these hot little nuggets sat until I could approach them in safety. Here are the points that cooked my thinking:

  1. Key word search is brute force search.
  2. Yahoo BOSS is a way to embrace and extend search
  3. The Xoogler system looked promising but possibly disappoints
  4. Viewdle facial recognition software is prescient. (This is an outfit hooked up with Thomson Reuters, known for innovation by chasing markets before the revenue base crumbles away. I don’t associate professional publishers with innovation, however.)
  5. Naver from Korea is a super electronic game portal.
  6. Mahalo is a human-mediated system and also interesting, and the BBC has a topics page which also looks okay
  7. SearchMe, also built by Xooglers, uses a flash-based interface.


Xooglers are inspired by Apple’s cover flow. Now how many hits did my query “beyond search” get. Can your father figure out how to view the next hit or make this one large enough to read, a brute force way to get information of course.

These points were followed by this statement:

When you marry solid data and indexing (everyone forgets that Google’s code base is almost ten years old), useful new data points (facial recognition, behavioral targeting, historical precedent, trust, etc) with a compelling and useful user experience, we may see some changes in the market leadership of search.

I would like to comment on each of these points:

Key word search is brute force search. I am not prepared to accept this assertion. Microsoft  and other vendors use a wide range of behind-the-scenes rocket science to deliver on-point results for key word queries. Google’s simplistic home page attracts somewhere between 60 and 65 percent of the queries in North America. If it were broken and ineffective, the usage would decline. So far that hasn’t happened. Furthermore, none of the newcomers in Web search in the last decade have made much of a dent in the respective market shares of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Vendors keep trying and keep failing. Google, not new whizzy search engines, hurt Microsoft and Yahoo. Key word search may look stupid, but my research suggests that it is not.

Yahoo BOSS extends and embraces. Maybe? I think that Yahoo has some fundamental weaknesses. An open approach, no matter what the chief technical officer hopes were true, is too little and too late. The clock is ticking for Yahoo, and it is rumored to be buying AOL. Now that will help its next generation search technology if it can settle on one of the many systems it is currently running. Yahoo is a fragmented outfit in terms of its technology in my opinion. Anna Patterson (formerly the inventor of and the rest of her team made some missteps. Now Louis Monier is gone. The company can recover, but right now its market share is lower than’s. I am not sure how promising is now. Dr. Patterson’s Google inventions strike me as first rate, but the management turmoil and the shock wave from the launch which mapped my logo to a company in the SEO business suggests that some work must be done fast and before the venture funding runs dry.

Viewdle. I like facial recognition software. It’s readily available from LTU Technologies here, Google, and a couple of other companies. There are some folks with a keen appetite for facial recognition. The problems are the people who keep moving their faces around, walking quickly, and wearing baseball caps. Can Viewdle outperform the Google system? Maybe. Can Viewdle scale? Probably not.

Naver. The popular Web pages in China, Japan, and Korea drive me crazy. Users in those countries love the dense presentation of information. I agree that Naver is doing something right. Is the Naver model transportable to Harrod’s Creek or a Swiss pharmaceutical company? Nope. Never. When today’s middle school students are in their teens, these markets may be more amenable to Naver-like services. In the next two or three years, the appeal will be outside the US. Since I focus on the US, I can’t get too excited unless one of my clients wants to buy the company and I get the job to analyze it. Until then, it’s a big product in a very large non-English speaking market.

Mahalo. In 1993, Chris Kitze, my son, and I build Point (Top 5% of the Internet). It has Mahalo-like qualities. It had a strong following. When Lycos expressed interest in buying it, we sold. Where’s Point now? Lycos lost its interest. In the wake of Point, these traditional human intermediated indexing systems have a role, but it is a niche play. hakia’s swizzle on this human intermediation with librarians is a niche play. Why niche? Smart software is the future due to the cost, time pressures, and volume of electronic information that must be processed.

SearchMe. Xooglers and Flash may be really exciting to some people. To me it’s a rehash of Kartoo. When new is nothing more than “me too” to uninformed yet very smart former Google employees, I yawn. The problem with Flash is that there’s change afoot in the visual implementation tool space. I don’t want to bet on Flash for my retirement fund, but Xooglers do. That’s their call, not mine. Another niche play that will probably be acquired or fold.

Agree? Disagree? Help me learn!

Stephen Arnold, September 27, 2008


3 Responses to “BBC: Search Is a Backwater”

  1. Tien Dung on September 27th, 2008 12:51 am

    Hi Stephen,

    Do you think Yahoo BOSS is a good model to encourage innovation from developer community?

  2. Nicole Adams on October 4th, 2008 1:03 pm

    Just a heads up, the founders of are not X-googlers 🙂

  3. Stephen E. Arnold on October 4th, 2008 1:24 pm

    Nicole Adams

    My source was from the sources linked to in my original post. Readers, make a mental note: there is a conflict about who worked where and when with regard to SearchMe.

    Stephen Arnold, October 4, 2008

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