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Move over ‘worldwide web’, it’s time for ‘where, what, when, why, who’

Welcome to the Friday Commentary. In this series every Friday experts will shine a light on the digital industry. Where are we heading, what is going on and how should we approach this as decision makers? This Friday we listen to Tor Crockatt, EMEA Product Marketing Director for Bing Ads.


If in a conversation with a friend, you answered their questions without reference to anything you knew about them, it might not go down so well. Search engines, in their traditional form, are just a bunch of questions and answers, so why should it be any different?

One of the things that keeps me working in search is being able to review search query data – seeing what is in the national consciousness. Query data not only represents the pulse of the nation’s whims, but is also a fascinating insight into the information that the user expects the internet to furnish them with. A big factor in rendering the right mix of results is the quality of the user input. Our job is to unravel the meaning of these queries. Does the guy who typed in ‘bath’ want to go to a charming spa town, or does he need to bathe urgently? Did the guy behind a query for ‘iron’ want to pump some, curl his hair, smarten up or simply eat better? Did you know that when looking for a product or physical thing, we naturally search in plurals, for example, you’d search for ‘DVD recorders’, or ‘used cars’, whilst in fact being in need of only one. In search, verbs are rarely conjugated, and curiously in commercial queries the past tense is only really used for services you want in the future – ‘carpet fitted’ or ‘oil changed’. In a user’s choice of grammar, we have signals to better understand meaning, but the more specific the query gets, the more chance we have of getting it right. Until recently, your anticipation should only extend to how well you articulate the scope of your expectation, in actual words.

When I started working in search back in the early 2000s, you could look at search query data and see a sea of domains as keywords, because people were confused between a search box and a browser. We would get entire domains as queries, complete with http:// and ‘www.’ – I would love to see what the browser logs had to show for themselves. As you would expect, searches for URLs are happening less and less, and this started me thinking – when was the last time you stopped and thought about what ‘www.’ actually means? Today, the idea of a ‘worldwide web’ is remarkably unremarkable in that the internet is available to anyone wherever they may be on the planet, and user interest (unless, expressly constrained) is assumed to be global in intent. The concept of being ‘worldwide’ is now less a wonder, and more of a human right (much like the unfettered availability of wi-fi in hotels).

So, what’s the new scope of modern search expectation? What’s the new ‘www.’? What better way to investigate than by reviewing the most open of questions posed by modern search users – the Ws – queries beginning with where, what, when, why and who. In pulling the data I have to say (with a small smirk) that much of it has to be censored, however, the results clearly show expectation for the search engine to have psychic abilities, or at least to understand specific, personalised details that would take more than a jiffy to enter into a search box (or indeed a browser). Below are some of the top queries with a W word:

  • What can I make with these ingredients?
  • What should I weigh for my age and height?
  • What should we call me?
  • Where can we go today?
  • Who should I ask for a reference for a job?
  • Where did I go wrong I lost a friend
  • When should I worry?
  • What should I watch?
  • What should I have for dinner?
  • Why am I so tired?
  • Why am I so cold?
  • Why does my face feel sore when it stings?
  • What does it mean when someone says you are a diamond?
  • Where is my meerkat toy?
  • When will I die?

What you should make for dinner really depends on what ingredients you happen to be clutching. Where you’re likely to want to go probably depends on what you like doing, whether you’re a doer, or more into impersonating pub furniture. I am not sure any technology will ever know where you misplaced something, without being terrifically omnipresent, nor will it have the wisdom to understand the complex series of events that happened between two people, resulting in the end of their friendship. Perhaps they listened badly.

However, these searchers – possibly except the one so concerned about their mortality – are starting to have faith in the future. They intimate in their questioning existing dimensions of the online world such as location, social and lifestyle factors that are now enabled by technology, services and devices. Not only that, but they are posing questions which, in order to be answered, require understanding of how these dimensions are inter-connected in infinite combinations.

Hang on a minute. What if the search engine knew, with your permission of course, whether you were in a work or a home context? What if, as in the case of my husband, it knew that you mostly listened to metal, that skateboarding was your golf, and that you only liked drinking in establishments where beer was on tap? What if it could detect your current, home and work locations, and connect those data points not only to what the search engine knows about venues or attractions nearby, but could prioritise those choices that specifically meet your preferences, and also plan you a route at the same time? What if the search engine didn’t need text strings to get your command – but instead could use gestures, voice or image recognition to ingest your expectations? Finally, what if that technology was not just available when you navigate to a website and punch in a question, but as a living, breathing intelligence fabric, connecting information across your personal online world.

This is a different sort of searching. Bing has been evolving since its inception in 2009 to build a digital universe composed of people, places and things, and has seen seismic shifts in how people search, the explosion of social and ubiquitous connectivity, blurring the lines between home and work and played out on multiple devices. It has through a deep understanding of these dimensions and entities and how they interact, built a new web of semantic relationships – a 360-degree universe of connections.

Microsoft is now in a position to present this new digital universe of people, places and things to respond to user expectation in a new way. Cortana – the new digital personal assistant on Windows Phone – was developed after interviewing 500 real-life personal assistants and asking them what makes them such a powerful resource. Cortana, now in beta in the US, is truly personal, remembers and carefully curates responses for you, using the power of natural language understanding and artificial intelligence to present your digital world. This world is powered by Bing’s immense knowledge, but is also tailored to your preferences, your network, and your location and context. Cortana is as integrated into your apps as you allow her to be, learning and evolving. She keeps a ‘notebook’ of what she has learned about you, which is available to edit, giving you control of personalisation. The internet doesn’t have a memory, but Cortana does.

In the future, you won’t need me pontificating about the most likely user intent of a query based on the keywords’ inherent meanings, and grammatical structure. In fact, my linguistic training will largely go to waste. Simply because there will be no ‘generalised’ user intent. Instead, there will be personalised intent, your own web, tailored to you, with your permission. The worldwide web will have a few more Ws, and will evolve into the ‘where, what, when, why, who’. Sitting here looking at query text strings will give me little clue as to what you, the user, really wants, or what you personally are seeing. Not because you don’t have clear intent, but because you will no longer have to type anything in but the most basic manual signals. ‘Bar!’ my husband will say to Cortana, and there’ll be beer on tap and metal playing, and there’ll be more than a slim chance of the pub being wall-to-wall with skaters. Where’s the fun in that for me.


This is the last Friday Commentary before the summer, we will continue this feature after the Summer holidays. Stay tuned though, we have something special ready for you during the summer! Read up on old Friday Commentaries here

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Tor Crockatt is EMEA Product Marketing Director for Bing Ads, the paid search platform for the Yahoo Bing Network. She has been with Microsoft for 8 years, and has spent recent years leading the Bing Ads Marketplace Team in EMEA.