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Search Engines vs. Answer Machines

I’ve often said that in five years, Google won’t exist. They’re so used to search engines that they can’t imagine it could disappear.

But they also forget search engines didn’t exist until recently. Before the early 90s, there was no such thing as web-based search engines. Yahoo started 1993-4 but it was a directory (a list of links). Modern search engines started in 98-99 when software began indexing webpages. Search engines are now moving to the next step: instead of indexing pages, they are creating answers. Search engines will turn into answer machines.

What’s the difference?

  • Search Engines: Search for “flights to Shanghai” and you’ll find a list of pages by United, Korean Air, China Southern, Singapore Air, and other airlines.
  • Answer Machines: An answer engine creates the answer just for you. Google uses data from airlines, maps, weather, traffic, and other resources to create a reply just for you. The answer is written by Google, not websites. Someone else asks the same question and they may get a different answer, depending on their location, time, past behavior, and so on.

Go ahead and try it. If you have the latest version of Google Chrome on your phone, try talking to Google:

  • “Okay, Google, what’s the status on Southwest flight 2416?”
  • “Okay, Google, will it rain tomorrow?” 
  • “Okay, Google, navigate to the nearest gas station.”

These answers are not from websites. The answers are created by Google (at the end of this posting, there are many more questions that you can ask Google).

Wow. Did Google invent this?

As with most everything at Google, other people developed this idea. Wolfram calls this “computable knowledge”, which means information can be calculated by computers. Wolfram released Wolfram Alpha, its computational machine, in 2009.

You can use Wolfram Alpha to find answers. For example, ask for the distance from earth to jupiter at 10:42 am on april 21st, 2428. That question is impossible for any search engine (including Google) because search engines can only find an answer if it is already on a webpage by someone else, but nobody has created webpages with Jupiter’s data for the year 2428. However, Wolfram uses astronomical databases to calculate the distance for any planet or moon for any year. It can also do this for hundreds of topics in chemistry, physics, history, and so on. Wolfram Alpha can generate local weather information. Ask it for a weather forecast in five days in Palo Alto. You can even use it to generate music at Wolfram Tones where every song is unique.

So What Does this Mean for Users?

This is great for users:

  • You get the correct answer
  • You don’t scroll through lots of webpages to find what you want
  • You won’t see junk, fake pages, scams, or spam

What Does this Mean for Everyone Else?

This is bad for companies, newspapers, apps, organizations, and writers:

  • Companies: Google could replace stores. Why waste your time in looking at Walmart, Sears, Target, etc., when you can ask Google “List of electric self-powered lawnmowers under $200”; it shows you a list; you pick one; you pay with Google Pay; it arrives within a few hours with Google Express.  Google has the ability to do this now.
  • Newspapers: Companies are using computers to write news stories, marketing material, business reports, sports news, and more. Reasd abiout this at bbc.com/news/technology-34204052. See more about this at AutomatedInsights.com
  • Organizations: Government databases are owned by the public which means Google will become the interface to that data. You’ll use Google, not the Social Security Administration. This puts public information in the hands of a company.
  • Writers: People create webpages to publish their ideas, thoughts, and experiences. They make their pages accessible to everyone. But to find these pages, people use search engines. As Google evolves into an answer machine, search and webpages will fade into a minor field where few people go. The dream of the World Wide Web in the mid-90s allowed everyone to publish on a level playing field. But by 2010, nearly all of the web was dominated by only a few hundred companies. Netflix alone accounts for third of all web traffic. The top 10-20 sites have 90% of all traffic.

It’ll get worse: Google can review search queries to see what can be replaced with its own results.

What Does this Mean for SEO?

SEO will shift from optimization into database creation and management. Instead of hiring SEO people, companies will use Google-compliant data formats to arrange data so it can be used by Google tools.

For example, an airline won’t need to make its flight schedule available to the public. They’ll only need a brochure site with a few pages with about the company. Flights, prices, etc. will be handled by Google.

Examples of Questions for Google

Here are examples of what you can ask Google. You can type these, but you should really try these by talking to your phone. Say “Ok, Google, set an alarm for 7am” and see how it works. See if you can discover more possibilities. I often use “Ok, Google, set the timer for 12 minutes.”

Set Your Calendar, Alarms, Reminders

  • Set an alarm for 7 AM
  • Set an alarm for every Friday at 7 AM
  • Set the timer for 37 minutes
  • Remind me to call John at 6 PM
  • Remind me to buy Belgian chocolate at Ghirardelli Square
  • Show me my SMS messages from Brian about dinner
  • Create a calendar event for dinner in San Francisco, Saturday at 7 PM
  • See your upcoming bills: My bills or My Comcast bills 2013
  • What’s my day look like tomorrow?
  • When’s my next meeting?

Phone Calls, Email, Text Messages, Posting

  • Call Lindsay Hampson
  • Call Mom
  • Text Jason that I’m running 5 minutes late
  • Send a Hangouts message to Bob
  • Start a Hangouts chat
  • Start a video call
  • Video call Jane using Hangouts
  • Send an email to Kristin, subject new shoes, message, I have a new cat, full stop.
  • Listen to voicemail
  • Post to Facebook/Twitter that I’m going to be in Seattle for the weekend

Music, Movies, TV, Books, Pictures

  • Play Macklemore
  • What’s this song?
  • Play some music
  • What movies are playing tonight?
  • Where’s Hunger Games playing?
  • Show me pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge
  • Take a picture
  • Record a video

Get Directions & Travel

  • What’s the status of Delta flight 1424?
  • Navigate to Safeway
  • Directions to 1299 Colusa Avenue Berkeley California
  • Where’s the closest coffee shop?
  • What are some attractions in New York City?
  • Show me my flights
  • Where’s my hotel?
  • Book a table for 2 at Cascal on Wednesday

Facts & Answers

  • What time is it in London?
  • Do I need a jacket today?
  • What’s the weather like tomorrow morning?
  • Will it rain?
  • Where was Albert Einstein born?
  • How do you say turtle in Chinese?
  • What does gluttony mean?
  • What’s 16 ounces in pounds?
  • What’s the square root of 2209?

Change Your Device’s Settings

  • Turn wifi on/off
  • Turn bluetooth on/off
  • Turn flashlight on/off

Other Apps for Google
You can say Ok Google with some apps on your device. You may see a Google Card in the search results with a button that will allow you to launch the app. If you request this action several times and tap the button each time, Google will learn that you prefer that app and will not ask you again.

  • WeChat: Send a message to Kate with WeChat.
  • Search in apps: Search for thai food on Yelp