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The Future Of Search

/ Thoughts & Opinion

Accurately described by Thomas Roman of Connecticut State University as “completely nuts”; a young Iranian inventor recently claimed to have built a time machine. Apparently it doesn’t actually send you forward or back in time, but it can print out a report detailing an individual’s future and fate based on complex algorithms.

I’d like to imagine it as about as effective as the time machine that Uncle Rico and Kip ordered from the internet in the film Napoleon Dynamite.

So, still living in a world without time machines it’s not always going to be easy to imagine what the future holds, however we can still wildly speculate and when it all comes true, act like we knew all along.

With that in mind, I’d like to make some predictions for the future of search. Partly based on hearsay, partly based on the recent developments in the world of search and partly based on nothing more than hopes and dreams, I present to you my vision of the future of search.

Object Recognition Based Search

I was sitting in a Thai restaurant a couple of weeks ago and there was an odd looking flower on the table. Fascinated by the appearance and shape of the flower I thought I’d try looking it up later that evening, but to this day I still have no idea what it is. How can you search for something you don’t know the name of, nor how to describe effectively.

Imagine I’d had something on my phone or something hooked up to a Google Glasses type device which, when shown the flower, would run object or pattern recognition and provide me with information on what the flower type was. It could be tied into a Wikipedia type site for information as well as linking me to a location-based search for flower shops should I wish to purchase one nearby.

I don’t think practical object recognition tied to search is very far off to be honest, and with screen-based devices getting closer and closer to our face, it’s really only a matter of time before we can look at something and have searches running from voice command.

It wasn’t long ago, I read about someone’s desire to have a Shazam-style app, but for the faces of those people who you have met in the past but don’t remember. Sure, it’s probably a stalker’s wet-dream in the making, but for those who indulge in social media, you could meet somebody, have their face recognised, pull up their social profiles and all sorts. Job interviews would likely be over much quicker for one thing.

Facial recognition is already being used by Facebook to help you tag photographs, so how long is it before accurate facial recognition could be used to target missing individuals or wanted criminals though CCTV feeds or uploaded YouTube videos? Could you Google your missing child’s face and find map-based GPS data on where they are? Is this too much of an invasion of privacy?

Yes it’s all rather dystopian and there will always be outcries of privacy issues and allowing the internet to become too involved with real life, but are we really doing much to stop that happening slowly but surely anyway? When was the last time you glanced at the screen of your phone to make sure you didn’t have any unread notifications?

Page Based Background Search

How many times have you been on a website, and noticed something that you want to find out more about? Maybe it’s the topic of the web page, or an aside, or something you’re researching. What if, while you were browsing, Google was running searches in the background, based on the keywords of the page? Then when you wanted to run a quick search on a particular topic, word, phrase or image on the site, you could just click, command or gesture in a certain way on the word, topic or image and you could switch directly to search results based on that query.

Sure, it’s probably not going to be much faster than switching to Google and running a search manually, but if it speeds up Google’s service then I’m sure they’d jump on something like that. It might even bring back the advocation of properly used keyword meta tags or other useful meta data. Touch or body-based devices, where typing or voice commands are harder to do might in this case have swifter access to relevant search results.

Gesture Based Search

Ever play Charades? Imagine being able to run a search based on what people were trying to describe. Sure – it would ruin the game, but it might make communication with those who speak a different language or those with disabilities much more efficient. What about tying it to translation for use in foreign countries?

Obviously it would have to be pretty advanced and in a sense follows on from the object recognition style of thinking but it’s something to consider.

At a more basic level, what if you could draw in a search box instead of type? You draw what you’re searching for and based on lines and shape or even colour, Google runs an image or object search and provides possible results.

Services like What The Font provide something similar for typefaces already, so again this gesture-based search doesn’t seem so far off in some respects. At least not basic implementations.

Feeling Based Search

When was the last time you skipped a proper doctor’s check up in favour of Googling your symptoms and hoping you’ve not got something life threatening? Self diagnosis seems to be rife, and as opposed to finding out you’ve had a stroke without even realising, what if you could have some sort of internal analysis, which accurately looked up your symptoms?

A small (Google branded, obviously) implant which could measure areas with problems or analyse the blood in your system. Perhaps accurately representing pain on a normalised scale. It could then prompt you to connect to a computer and run a search based on legitimate medical information.

You could use it to measure how you felt, or even hook it up to measure complex emotional patterns. Feeling down? Let’s find the last piece of music which triggered a happy response and search for alternatives.

Had an emergency? Nobody around to help you? Let the device run a wireless distress command, and find the nearest ambulance dispatch.

Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but believe me, when this bad boy rolls around I’ll be the one saying “I told you so”.

Automatic Telephony Systems

What if you didn’t need to be at a computer to run a search? Maybe you don’t have a smart-phone either. How about a phone number you can ring which utilises voice-search to run a search and then provides you with location based results down the phone. It would be an interesting alternative to directory enquiries and could be advanced enough to utilise legitimate review data and recommendations from friends in your area.

It’s possibly a step back if we’re looking to rely on traditional phone systems, but if it doesn’t already exist in some form, and there’s money to be made from it – then you can bet somebody’s hooking that up right now.

Historical Context Search

How much more useful could Google be if it had access to your life, your computer or even just your internet history? Learning your browsing patterns, and learning what you like and dislike. Could it provide a more accurate result based on what Google knows you’ve done or want to do?

It might provide more accurate results, but I suppose there are once more privacy questions raised. Is it possible to help people search for things more accurately without encroaching on their lives too much or becoming too much like “big brother”?

The Absence Of Search

Well, not so much lack of search but lack of search results.

How long will it be (if ever) till Google’s Knowledge Graph provides all the answers on Google’s own pages, meaning you don’t even need to leave the search results to find what you’re looking for?

The SERPS then become an aggregate of feed-based information, and stop needing to link to other websites entirely. It’s a frightening prospect for those optimising sites, and although it might not happen any time soon, it is interesting to see how much more Google can do without needing to send you to another site.


Much of what I’ve mentioned probably doesn’t seem all that far fetched. Perhaps implants and encroaching on people’s privacy is a bit much, but already there is so much about people on the internet, and companies like Facebook or Tesco already know things about us that we’d probably rather they didn’t. Buying habits, how often we purchase products, where we are, what we’re doing and thinking, and so on. If this sort of thing continues, then perhaps a dystopian big-brother society isn’t as far off as we think. What role will search play in this? For those using search regularly perhaps a significant part.

I’d be interested to hear what you think, and how you think search and the future will change things for better or worse.

This post was originally written for the QueryClick blog.

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Alex Cowles

About The Author: Alex Cowles

A largely cynical and often sarcastic designer and front-end developer by day. Unknown international DJ & music producer extraordinaire by night (and at weekends). You probably won't like him.