Conversation Is The New Search

Search engines are having a hard time finding influencers, the social media tribespeople who have intimate knowledge of their trade and their profession but who are not celebrities. This could be a problem, as curated content forms the backbone of a new "Conversation Web" and individuals like Shauna Mei (heard of her?) become the catalysts for anything from retail shopping to international travel.

More of my time is spent searching for information about specific issues on platforms like Quora, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and thousands of other social sharing apps. Google and Bing get very little use, unless I am looking for a specific website. As the web moves from one of publication to one of conversation, I spend most of my hours working and talking to people I trust, who have reputations for honesty, action and projects that prove that they work well in the field with others.

These influencers don't get eight minutes with David Letterman. They don't get paid handsome bags of lucre a week to tell companies what to do. And they mean virtually nothing to everyone. They are the information-seeking missiles that every company or brand would be dying to have in their C-suite for five minutes. And search engines, brands and executives want to find them. Without them, people are missing out on huge opportunities to solve problems and make money.

"In this next round of the search movement, it's really going to shift to who is the influencer," says Jason Bennet, a consultant at Microsoft. "That person is someone who can write a lot, share a lot and doesn't mind being on social media ten or fifteen hours a day."

"What I am seeing in search now is that it's becoming about the use of a 'decisions engine,' of being hyperlocal and, 'I need to solve this one specific problem and I just need the answer.'"

You probably do know literally hundreds—maybe thousands—of micro-celebrities who in their engagement with you as a friend, a colleague or an associate, leave you with insights you might call learning moments. And they may fuel your decisions on all of the above. You spend most of your time with them.

But it is a lot easier for you to find those people, especially if you are also a social media-phile and an influencer of others. Note: One way of measuring this is to use Klout to show your impact, but there are dozens of other social metrics tools out there.

It's not so easy for search engines. This information exchange is happening in conversation, not in publication.

Bing's director of search is not far off from this thinking. Stefan Weitz told a reporter at the Huffington Post Friday that the old way of utilizing links to pages and measuring content is not working.

"Search itself hasn't changed fundamentally in the past 12 years," he said. "Traditional search is failing. The standard notion of search ... looking at the texts in the page, the backlinks, all that stuff doesn't work anymore." Weitz continues:

Our mission is literally to deliver knowledge by understanding intent. What that implies is that we understand the web as this digital representation of the real world," Weitz said. "We've now mapped almost every single square inch of the planet, we know where buildings are, we know who the people are, we know what tasks people are accomplishing—we are literally creating a semantic model, or a model, for everything in the world.

Dorian Benkoil, co-founder of social media consulting firm Teeming Media, says that it's not inconceivable that Google will see its dominance erode. Here is what Benkoil wrote to me when I asked them if Google's dominance could be under threat by the move to the granular individualization of the web:

It's not hard to envision a day when Google is not top dog—much as it is to imagine Microsoft the same way. As discovery spreads from search to other techniques, including those with layers of social recommendation and even semantic intelligence, Google will certainly continue to hold sway, but will continue, also, to lose dominance. For many sites we've already seen the top referral mechanism change from search to a social engine such as Twitter or Facebook. And Google's dominant revenue stream is ads from search. As marketers spread those dollars to the other methods of discovery, implications are obvious.

The new motto at search engines—and maybe even inside corporate offices at brands—may be: "How do we find who we don't know we want to know? How do we get them to tell us what we don't know?"

Okay, I will let you read that again. "How do we find who we don't know we want to know? How do we get them to tell us what we don't know?"

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