Is Search Really 90% Solved?

Jessica Guynn has an excellent interview with Google’s Marissa Mayer today about Google’s first ten years (today is arguably Google’s tenth birthday). Good stuff in there – Marissa talks about Google’s accomplishments in search and advertising, and looks forward to a future where cloud computing becomes pervasive. Marissa also says she hopes to still be at the company in another ten years.

But one thing caught my eye. Marissa says search is “90 to 95%” solved:

Search is an unsolved problem. We have a good 90 to 95% of the solution, but there is a lot to go in the remaining 10%. How do we monetize new forms of content as they come online such as video, maps and books. How do we help content providers transition their businesses online and build healthy businesses.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think search is even close to being solved yet. In a May 25 post I talked about how early I think we are in search, and why a competitive search market is so important to make sure innovation keeps happening:

Innovation In Search Has Just Begun

I simply cannot believe that just a little over a decade into the commercial Internet, Tim O’Reilly is willing to say that the search war is over. Did he not read his good friend John Battelle’s book, The Search? He’s not the only expert out there who thinks the war is over – Danny Sullivan argued as much on the Gillmor Gang last week. But I simply cannot believe that this is all we can expect in terms of search innovation.

There are so many areas on search that remain to be conquered. Semantic search. Real language/AI search. The deep web. Media search. Today search basically returns web documents. What I want is for search to complete tasks for me. We’re no where near that today.

We are just getting started in search. To think that search has reached its pinnacle today is like saying aircraft were perfected before World War I. And if just one company were to carry on in aircraft innovation at that point, I doubt we’d have jetliners whisking us around the world today.

Innovation does not occur at a rapid pace without competition. If Google or any company were to control search exclusively, we could expect to see little happen in search technology or business models over even the medium and long term.

Sure, the odd startup or two would still come along and try to shake things up. But search is infrastructure intensive – the cost and difficulty of indexing the web and building a business in an established market requires resources that most new startups can’t realistically access. And if the market consolidates further, competing will become that much harder. There’s a reason monopolies get broken up by governments – market forces can’t generally undo them.

If search was 90% solved, Google could look at a picture of me standing by the Eiffel Tower and know, without textual metadata, what’s there. It could return results for a Barack Obama query that include all the videos he’s in, again without relying on tags or other textual metadata. Natural language. Deep web searches. Semantic search. All of these problems are unsolved.

This is not the long term solution to image search.

But anyway, Happy Birthday Google. You’ve done a lot in ten years. Just don’t give up on search yet.