Search is Eating The World

Doug Turnbull
Apr 14, 2015 · 3 min read

Few recognize that the search bar, not software, is today’s core value proposition.

The following is a modified excerpt form “Taming Search” from Manning Publications. Use discount code 38turnbull to get 38% off the book.

Venture Capitalist Marc Andreessen famously wrote that “Software is Eating The World”. In his Wall Street Journal article, Andreessen rifles through a number of industries that software has revolutionized. Borders famously gave up online retail to Amazon, writing it off as unimportant. Netflix eviscerated Blockbuster’s brick-and-mortar rental monopoly. The recording industry has been challenged by the likes of iTunes and Spotify. Andreessen highlights dozens of traditional and brick-and-mortar businesses that failed to cope with the dominance of software.

What do Andreesen’s examples have in common? Much of the fundamental value shift has actually been towards search, not software. Search is eating the world. Amazon beat Borders because a well-tuned search engine can take me directly to a title I’m searching for faster than a teenager lost in limited stacks of books. Even if it once took days for a DVD to arrive, I’d rather use Netflix’s search-driven movie rental experience to narrow-in on a movie I’d like to watch instead of being limited by a store’s shelf space and overbearing staff. In many of Andreesen’s examples there’s a search engine doing software’s heavy lifting — fundamentally responsible for more efficiently delivering value to users and businesses.

Search applications like Web, E-commerce, and research applications, attempt to replace traditional methods that have typically acted as a gateway to products and information. Search engines replace librarians and sales representatives. Those that have done this succesfully find business gold, those that don’t are stuck in mediocrity. Yahoo famously focused on their human curated Web directory of vetted content acting more like a librarian for the Web than what we now take for granted in Google’s amazing search experience. Now Google experiences much greater success while Yahoo struggles to catch up.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The applications of search are only limited by our imagination. In law, armies of paralegals once combed through extensive legal tomes for answers. Now these tomes gather dust like old bowling trophies. They've been replaced by smarter, precise legal search used by a small, elite cadre of lawyers. When we shop for real estate, we don’t peruse pages of housing publications anymore. We use a search interface that ranks properties based on several pieces of criteria like square footage, school zone, and number of bedrooms. The list goes on.

Despite the fact that search-based user experiences are revolutionizing our lives, so many fail to grasp how their terrible search drives customers away. Sadly, many organizations are slow to change and unable to see the competitor chomping at their heels with a better and smarter search user experience. This blindness isn’t limited to the business — developers obsess over their application’s navigation, and neglect the search bar as an afterthought for finding content.

Its scary how easy it is for the organization to ignore search. So few understand what it takes to build a search user experience that understands users, their vernacular, and your content. It’s easy for all parts of the organization to focus on what they know — old forms of navigation and discovery. The art of relevance engineering — building search fluent in the subtleties of your content, users, and user experience— is unlike any other form of software developement. Its outside our comfort zone, but it can be taught.

So, regardless of much search fails you today; despite the unique challenge to building user intelligence or domain fluency into your search application, you must keep trying. You must pull out all the stops to avoid being the next Blockbuster or Borders. Don’t be surprised, be ahead of the curve. Build a practice of search expertise. Put search front and center. Don’t bury it. Learn how to treat it as a profit center, not a cost anchor.

Because, as history has shown, those with relevant search will prosper. The slow and irrelevant die.

If you enjoyed this, read more about “Taming Search” and the art of building fluent, relevant search applications here.

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