An Interview with Per and Susanne Koch
For many years, I have relied on Pandia.com to provide me with information about search and content processing. I found the lists and the news particularly helpful. When you visit the site, you can explore the site, run queries, and sign up for the company’s newsletter.
I was curious about where the company operated. I learned that it is in Oslo, Norway. I wanted to know more about the owners. I learned that it is a husband-wife team who find search fascinating. I wanted to know why the Pandia.com site covered such a range of information. I learned that Per and Susanne Koch have a keen interest in the different manifestations of search. Unlike the Beyond Search team, the Kochs monitor the world of search engine optimization.
I was able to speak with Susanne Koch in London on December 1, 2010, and then with both Per and Susanne via email several times in January 2011. The full text of our discussions appears below:
Why are you publishing information about search? What subjects do you cover?
Per: Information is the basis for knowledge. Knowledge is the basis for the development of competences. Competences are the basis for innovation. And through innovation we change the world. Given that the Internet has become the major repository for information, search is essential for learning and economic, social and cultural change.
Susanne: We cover the search engine industry in general, focusing both on search and search engine marketing. Given the growing importance of social media as a tool for searching and learning, we also cover this part of the Internet, to the extent that it is relevant for searching.
What's your background? What technical aspects of search interest you? What marketing aspects of search interest you? Do you track both Web and enterprise search or just one? Why?
Per: My background is from the humanities. Therefore the social transformative power of search interests me. Technology is often seen as something different than social processes. For me technical change and social/cultural change are two sides of the same coin. Google is an end product of a social revolution, including – for instance – the hippie inspired gospel of open access, as well as new technological possibilities grown out of ICT.
A particularly interesting side to using web search in marketing is the social aspect of it all. There was a time when search engine marketers believed they could find the recipe for successful online marketing by reverse engineering the search engine algorithm. Now you really need to develop a feeling for useful communication, relevant content generation and the social and cultural rules of social media.
Susanne: We do follow enterprise search to a certain extent, but we readily admit that our main focus has been on web search. Pandia is a two person part time exercise, and there are limits to what we have been able to do. Enterprise search is very interesting, though. These companies face challenges that the web search companies do not, including – for instance – access to a limited amount of data and interlinkages. Enterprise search companies may also bring out new innovations that can enrich web searching.
As you look back over 2010, what are the major highlights you noticed? How does 2010 differ from 2009?
Susanne: In Europe and North America we are now facing a duopoly with Google as the effective leader in search. Yahoo! has essentially given up search, returning to the old portal idea as a business model. This means that their main focus now is content production, not search. I am not sure this will work in the long run. We had great hopes for Ask.com, as the company developed some great improvements to – for instance the organization of search results. This was very similar to what we now find at both Bing and Google. But the company lost its way. I seriously doubt that being a Q&A site is the solution.
Per: This dupoply is bad for innovation. Google needs strong and creative competitors that force it to innovate. What we really need now is someone to bring in a radically new perspective to search, in the way PageRank once made Google big.
As you look forward to 2011, what are the three trends that seem to be of particular interest to you? Are any particular companies associated with any of these trends?
Per: We have a tendency of underestimating the role of big Non-European and Non-American players. Yandex and Baidu may make an impact outside their core markets in the future, although not as early as 2011.
Susanne: The debate about privacy will become even more important in 2011. This is partly caused by the increasing use of Facebook and cloud-based services, and partly because policy makers and the media will become more aware of the problem. In Europe we see this in the interest the European Commission is showing in this topic. Small players like Duck Duck Go may increase their reach because of this.
What's your view of the increasing interest in search as a discovery function, where the information "finds" the user? Is this likely to have a positive or negative effect on research for school students? What about the implications of discovery solutions for business executives?
Susanne: The JISC study on Information behaviour of the researcher of the future found that even though most young people are at home with computers, their skills are insufficient to guide them in finding reliable information online. For instance, many kids do not know how to construct an effective search query. A high quality discovery engine might be useful in helping to remedy this. Students will still need stronger information literacy than most of them have today.
Another aspect of the discovery function is that even a high quality tool might let inappropriate content through and schools have a particular responsibility to keep this kind of content away from minors. Reliable filters will be important.
Per: For the business sector the combination of geo-location and apps for mobile smart phones will bring a whole new platform for advertising and marketing. Apple sees this, as does Google. The problem will be the temptation to flood users with such context sensitive messages. People may get really annoyed at this kind of invasion of their personal space, ultimately deciding to turn it off in real terms (by using ad-killers) or psychologically (by becoming "banner-blind", not seeing them).
What's your view of mobile search? Will mobile search be different from traditional Web search? If so, in what way? How will the form factor of mobile devices impact search?
Per: Geo-location does make mobile search different from regular search to the extent you are looking for shops and places. The use of geo-location (GPS-based or otherwise) and camera as input to search engines has already changed the way we search on smart phones. The search for information in general will not be equally affected.
Susanne: The small screens remain a major problem, although the birth of smart phones like the iPhone and the Android phones have made reading easier. I am not impressed with the voice input I have tested so far. Google's app seem to understand a particular version of American English at best, but I guess this will be rectified through incremental innovation.
SEO is a big deal but there are billions of Web pages and most sites get zero traffic. How do you see the efforts and activities of the SEO consultants? Is this type of indexing and page shaping useful to users looking for objective information?
Per: Yes, it can be. Many companies thrive in particular niches, geographical or as regard the type of service or product they deliver. They thrive in the long tail of searching, and that is where even minor improvements in text writing and web design may make a big difference as regards search rankings. The growth of local search makes the competences of SEO consultants even more important.
Unfortunately there are still those that try to sell companies easy fixes, in essence telling the companies to spam the search engine. That may cost them dearly.
The iPad has many publishers thinking in terms of an app for specific content. But if publishers put content on an app that costs money, won't the search engines miss content? What happens to the idea of going to a single service to get an overview of the information?
Per: I love the iPad, and I find myself using the apps more than the web browser when looking for information. The main reason for this is that the apps can make full use of the screen and the finger movements, while the regular web pages are designed for larger screens.
It should be noted, though, that in one respect the iPad is a step back to pre-Mac and pre-Windows time, where each program had its own interface and its own technology. With the exception of apps based on RSS feeds the content delivered is not searchable by the search engines. For instance, I cannot use Google to find comics sold through the Marvel comics app. Apple is even trying to expand this concept to the PC, using separate programs for music and video search (iTunes) and software search (Mac App Store).
It is unclear to me how much this will limit access to relevant information in the future, but Google is very aware of the problem. Combined with walled gardens like Facebook, this removes large quantity of information out of Google's reach.
Susanne: The concept of apps will influence the way most people perceive the Internet: If a special holiday planning app suggests 10 hotels at a certain location, it is convenient to accept these 10 as the best. The inconvenience of trying another app or a web search (which gives notoriously bad results for hotel searches) might limit many people's searches.
There has been more and more talk about the lack of objectivity in Web search results. What's your view about the objectivity of a typical user's query and the resulting list of hits or links to pages? How does advertising affect objectivity? What about Web masters who shape results via hit boosting? Are relevancy and precision still important?
Susanne: Relevance and precision in search results will always be essential. Google is painfully aware of this, which is why they strive so hard to make even the AdWords ads relevant. People return to Google because Google helps them find what they are looking for. When Google no longer provides relevant results, people will look elsewhere.
Per: Spam is a huge problem, though, and the search engines are fighting an endless war against the mass production of low quality pages and tactical linking. This means that the idea of an completely automatic, "objective", search algorithm is dead. The one who is able to solve thes problems will become very rich.
Governments are starting to filter information. The UK wants to ban pornography, which is often difficult to define. China filters content and seems to be on a path to ban VoIP. Other countries, including the US, have taken steps to remove certain content from the Internet. What is your view of this situation? How can a researcher gain access to the information necessary to answer a question? Will commercial search systems make a come back?
Per: Search gives the Web a tremendous social transformative power, and the wannabe censors see this. China is an excellent example of an authoritarian regime that has managed to use modern technology and modern social propaganda strategies to control the access to web content and use the web for social engineering. That being said, there are still enough loop holes for people to find relevant and "forbidden" information.
What I would like to see is for Page and Brin to invest a few hundred million dollars in a fund financing the development of tools and technologies that can help people get around the walls and spy applications, helping them get access to all of the Internet without being discovered by dictators and moralists. That would help the growth of democracy and even give Google a sweet revenge over the Chinese authorities.
Susanne: As for censorship in democratic countries like Germany and the US: The people asking for the ban of pornography and racist propaganda has to ask themselves what democracy is about and where the line is to be drawn. They also give the authorities in countries like Iran and China the excuse they are looking for: If Germany can censor search results to preserve their way of life, why shouldn't China do the same to preserve "social stability" (i.e. the continuation of Communist control)?
On a technical note, most services do not make clear when an index was updated. What's your view about the freshness of an index? What would you like Web indexing companies to do to point out that a site was unavailable for indexing, so the content from this Web site may be old or frozen? What other technical issues do you see search vendors addressing in 2011?
Susanne: Yes, it would make sense for the search engines to provide such information. In some cases this information is essential. As for technical issues for search in 2011, image search is due for an update. All mainstream image search today find and rank images based on meta data and surrounding text. The processor capacity is now readily available and it should be technically possible to search the images themselves for shapes and colors. Much of this technology already exists and the applications should be almost innumerable.
There are new search companies entering the market even in today's economy. Most of these companies remain very small. What's your view of the opportunity in search for a small search start up? Is a niche search solution the answer like InQuira and customer support or some broader play as a search platform?
Susanne: Niche search engines have been coming and going for 10 years and none of them have made a real splash. With the exception of a few research professionals and enthusiasts, people prefer a fully fledged broad search engine. One exception might be search apps. There are apps available for all kinds of vertical search and these fit very well with the narrow, goal oriented behavior of mobile search.
The hottest trends in search in my work are social content search and search based applications. Where do these fit in your view of what's hot and what's not for 2011?
Susanne: The time is right for social content search, especially when a real time search option is added. So much content is created and shared in social networks and searchers often prefer content recommended by real people to content ranked by an algorithm. But social networks have an appalling signal to noise ratio. The products that will get ahead in this niche are the ones that not only serve fresh content, but manage to identify high quality content. Right now, neither the social networks themselves or the big search engines or the dedicated social search engines are really great at this.
As for search based applications, we have mentioned those in some of our answers above. To recap, smart phones, mobile search and geo-location combine to make this a year of opportunity for search apps.
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Stephen E. Arnold, February 1, 2011
Freebie but I have been promised a salted fish next time I am in Oslo.