Marissa Mayer Clarifies: Search Is Only 10% Done, Not 90%

I spoke to Google’s Marissa Mayer at TechCrunch50 on Monday (a little after she we celebrated Google’s 10th birthday with cupcakes) and asked her about the search is “90-95%” solved story over the weekend. She said she’d be posting a clarification on the Google blog. That clarification just went up, here.

In the original article, published in the LA Times, 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.

Today Marissa clarifies, suggesting that her real point is that the first 90% of the search problem is solved, but that was the easy part. The last 10% will actually be 90% of the real work, she says, and it will take decades or longer to complete it. She also compares search today to the fiields of biology and physics in the 1500s or 1600s.

We’re all familiar with 80-20 problems, where the last 20% of the solution is 80% of the work. Search is a 90-10 problem. Today, we have a 90% solution: I could answer all of my unanswered Saturday questions, not ideally or easily, but I could get it done with today’s search tool. (If you’re curious, the answers are below.) However, that remaining 10% of the problem really represents 90% (in fact, more than 90%) of the work. Coming up with elegant, fitting and relevant solutions to meet the challenges of mobility, modes, media, personalization, location, socialization, and language will take decades. Search is a science that will develop and advance over hundreds of years. Think of it like biology and physics in the 1500s or 1600s: it’s a new science where we make big and exciting breakthroughs all the time. However, it could be a hundred years or more before we have microscopes and an understanding of the proverbial molecules and atoms of search. Just like biology and physics several hundred years ago, the biggest advances are yet to come. That’s what makes the field of Internet search so exciting.

For the record, I agree. Search is in its infancy, which is why I keep using that image of a pre-World War I airplane. To declare search “solved” today would be the same as saying powered flight was solved way back then. We’re just getting started.

Marissa also defines the ideal search engine:

So what’s our straightforward definition of the ideal search engine? Your best friend with instant access to all the world’s facts and a photographic memory of everything you’ve seen and know. That search engine could tailor answers to you based on your preferences, your existing knowledge and the best available information; it could ask for clarification and present the answers in whatever setting or media worked best. That ideal search engine could have easily and elegantly quenched my withdrawal and fueled my addiction on Saturday. I’m very proud that Google in its first 10 years has changed expectations around information and how quickly and easily it should be able to be retrieved. But I’m even more excited about what Google search can achieve in the future.

Sounds pretty good to me.