Earlier this afternoon I was on a panel at the iMedia Connection Summit about the "future of search." Moderated by the humorous and ever-insightful Kevin Ryan, the panel ran the gamut of topics from search-ad agency relations to adjunct targeting mechanisms and likely search product developments.
Also on the panel with me were Bob Visse, Director of Marketing, MSN Search; Ron Belanger, Vice President, Search Engine Marketing, Carat Interactive and Bob Heyman, Chief Search Officer, Media Smith. The panel (and especially Bob Visse's comments) got me thinking that a metaphor for the future of search is MS Office — an integrated suite of applications that work together and reinforce usage because of their comprehensiveness and compatibility.
Okay, so that's not such a revelation. But it makes sense from my point of view.
Beyond Web search itself, I think those elements probably are: desktop, local, personalization (although this could simply be "umbrella" functionality), community/social networking and maybe shopping and video. Mapping falls under local. They all work together and they're all integrated. My belief is that consumers want simplicity, convenience and efficiency, not 10,000 vertical sites to address disparate needs.
The presentation of those elements will vary from provider to provider; but those, I believe, will be the basic "modules" (essentially what Google appears to be doing with "fusion," at least conceptually).
On a related but separate note, one of the challenges that search faces, which the panel also discussed, is disambiguating user intent and determining where the user is in the buying cycle. My thought is build a "shopping engine" or modify an existing one so that the consumer provides the information him/herself and there's no question. Why not have several tabs or links that correspond to the various phases of the purchase funnel: research and reviews (both community and editorial), browse and compare products/prices, offers/coupons and buy online or locally.
Those may not be precisely the right categories or pairings (that's for the focus group). But the idea is that the user will indicate where s/he is in the cycle and that not only creates the opportunity for much greater relevance in the information presented, it creates different ad inventory at each stage — branding at the research stage, coupons (if applicable), PPC at the price comparison/buy stage and maybe pay-per-phone call opportunities at the buy offline/locally tab.
That kind of buying-cycle architecture would be interesting and solve a lot of problems with divining user intent from a couple of keywords. Anyway . . . just a thought.