Monday, August 18, 2008

The Path to Ambient Findability

Note: I penned this piece for Federated Media's Future of Search site a few months ago but they haven't published it yet so I'll use it as the debut post for this blog. What better framework by which to speculate on what the digital sea change will bring about than by analyzing the platform that irreversably changed the marketing model from push to pull?

The best way to prepare for the future is to look at -- and learn from -- the past. Danny Sullivan demonstrated that as he took us through Search 1.0 and 2.0 as a framework by which we can think about Search 3.0 today and 4.0 tomorrow.

I’m going to take a different approach -- let’s call it the next best way to prepare for the future. To get a sense for what search might look like in five to ten years, I suggest we probe far beyond that and work our way backwards.

Join me on the path to ambient findability.

Them’s Big Words

A phrase coined by Peter Morville and the topic of his fascinating book, ambient findability refers to the all-encompassing ability to be locatable or navigable.

I explored this topic in depth across three Search Insider columns, ruminating on what it means for personalization, the potential downside, and select quotes from the book in the context of search marketing.

The Cliff Notes version is that ambient findability speaks to a world in which everything and everyone can be indexed and found anywhere at any time.

Heady stuff, aye? You might say Morville’s got his head in the clouds. The real question, though, is if it’s the Google cloud -- more on that later.

Work With Me Here

For now, let’s put aside all the challenges associated with reaching the point of pervasive computing that would activate ambient findability. Morville devotes the first couple chapters of his book to addressing these hurdles and, while they are not small leaps, they are certainly not insurmountable -- especially if we pause and look back at how far we’ve come since Al Gore invented the Internet some thirty-odd years ago.

In fact, there are tangible examples of corporations harnessing the power of ambient findability today. One great example is the MyLifeBits project being conducted by Microsoft. I’ve written three columns about MyLifeBits focusing on its impact on personalization, ability to succeed, and application to search marketing.

In a nutshell, MyLifeBits is a memex (memory extender) created by digitizing and indexing an individual’s entire life -- online/phone chats, media consumed, pictures of people/objects encountered, etc. -- and, of course, making it all searchable.

You can view the demo for yourself but, suffice it to say, the technology needed to achieve ambient findability is here today. The only question is when it will become ubiquitous.

Finding’s Just the Half of It

The implications of ambient findability are profound. Per Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, the brains behind MyLifeBits, the ultimate goal of the project is
"complementary computing, where the computer understands human limitations and fills in the gaps." In other words, once they’ve built a massive index of everything in a person’s life, they can create "a machine that can act like a personal assistant, anticipating its user's needs."

What they’re getting at here is essentially Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for the Semantic Web -- a platform whereby objects are not only findable but can communicate with each other. To envision how this plays out, consider Berners-Lee’s scenario in which a guy gets a call from his sister about their mom’s recent health issues. The man’s Web “agent” then looks up a treatment, identifies a local specialist, cross-references the doctor’s ratings and acceptable insurance plans, and books an appointment.

Show Me The Money

Jerry Maguire, this “agent” is not. We’re not even talking about Deep Blue here. This is artificial intelligence at its finest. This is Google search meets Amazon recommendations meets eBay ratings meets Microsoft Outlook Calendar meets Facebook news feed. And layer it over a Powerset platform -- or even better, IBM WebFountain -- so it can be done using natural language.

Clearly, all these companies aren’t joining forces anytime soon -- although Microsoft did just buy Powerset. And clearly, Steve Ballmer can’t fund a MyLifeBits project for everyone in the world. Or can it? Google has proven that investing in cloud-computing technologies that help people digitize their lives -- Gmail, Book Search, Google Earth, Blogger, Picasa, YouTube, etc. -- leads to more search queries which leads to more ad revenue.

So is search advertising a sustainable model for a world of ambient findability? Maybe. As long as we define search advertising not as keyword textlinks but as query marketing.

No Longer in the Minority

We are already beginning to see brands woven into the fabric of our digital lives just like any other asset we own -- or hope to own. Marketing in a world of ambient findability takes this to the next level, manifesting in two potential outcomes.

One is that marketing messages are presented in a relevant, non-interruptive manner based on our stated intent through queries or implied intent through our past behavior and that of our peers. In this case, advertising actually adds value to our daily activities. Back to Berners-Lee’s scenario -- after that doctor appointment, picture your Web “agent” scanning offers from pharma advertisers and querying your friend’s and family’s experiences before filling the prescription with the brand that’s the best fit for you.

The other outcome conjures up images of Minority Report, where Tom Cruise walks through a mall and is bombarded by “personalized” offers -- “John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right about now.” It’s also reminiscent of the Dave Chappelle skit where he’s walking around the “Internet” only to get stopped every couple feet by pop-ups for porn and other spam.

There’s no doubt which is the preferred scenario and Google’s success to date with consumer-initiated advertising gives me confidence that the model can scale.

The Here and Now

It’s anyone’s guess how long it will take until Morville’s dream of ambient findability is realized but I think we can all agree it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

And it also seems assured that search will play a key role in helping us navigate a world in which everything and everyone can be found.

So what can those of us with a stake in search marketing do today to prepare for that eventuality?

I think the first step is to embrace John Battelle’s words from his inaugural post on the Future of Search site. We have to truly consider “how flexible and powerful search can become when it is unhinged from the standard approach to which we’ve all become accustomed.”

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Whichever direction you head, remember that the path to ambient findability is not linear. As Danny emphasized, you have to know where you’re from to know where you’re going. But don’t spend too much time looking in the rear-view mirror or you’ll miss the many forks in the road ahead.

And, if you ever need a little inspiration, go fly a kite.

Update 10/3: Federated Media finally published my post. It had to be edited it down for space but the key points remain intact.

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