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Do “Search Engines Own the Future”?

Digital Asset Management | Or Do You?

No after-lunch conference speech has ever stuck with your serial conference-eating reporter so memorably as a talk given almost 20 years ago at the American Stock Exchange by Robert W. Lucky. Now the corporate VP for applied research at Telcordia Technologies, Lucky was then one of the leaders of AT&T Bell Labs. He was predicting the future. As happens, he predicted some things that may have been logical but never would happen. But he also said, then at the dawn of the Internet era, “In the future, search engines will own the world.”

It’s a solid bet that most of his audience hadn’t even yet used a search engine, and didn’t know what the words meant.

Then came Yahoo!, and eventually Google, and in-between many an imitator and wannabe and even a few innovators that went belly up or merged into the big names or, perhaps more oddly, persist still with relatively low Web traffic but some specific qualities that none of the big guys can match. Lucky has obviously already been proved right, but there’s more to come. The video search engine will likely replace the quaint old functions once performed by TV program schedulers, channel branding professionals, and many (but far from all) media buyers. It will probably also suck a lot of the profit out of traditional broadcasting.

Still, to paraphrase Lenin, where there’s money to be made helping to implement our industry’s destruction, that’s where capitalists like us will be.

Google started to make Lucky look prophetable all over again in January, when it previewed its video search engine at the NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives) convention. Hosting a demo in a closed suite, group product manager Richard Holden showed, “an inevitable extension of what we do”: Google video search through all available TV programs and program guides. The company came to the convention to make friendly deals with programmers to index their material.

Yahoo! and America Online followed suit by the summer, AOL to such an extent that it has reordered its entire business around video search. The company’s “Audience” division was launched publicly in July with live and indexed coverage of the worldwide Live 8 event, and will continue with a game plan of bringing AOL’s content out of its previous walled garden as free, ad-supported media. The Live 8 launch was so successful that AOL unexpectedly turned a profit on what they thought would be a promotional and charitable event. And there’s much more on the way.

“We thought all along when we were spending millions of dollars on content, that it was essential to the appeal of our dial-up business,” says Alex Blum, product VP of AOL Audience. “It turns out content was not essential at all. In narrowband, the essentials are the connection, consumer friendliness, safety and support. Content is king in broadband, not connectivity. Compared with Yahoo! and Google, the design of is very rich. There’s lots of streaming video and audio, access to podcasts, etc. And we’ll be rolling out this very video-heavy set of features centering on our video search engine and media player.”

Blum explains that AOL has 50 million “unique users” of its media player, a new, improved version of which will soon be rolled out; he claims it will handle every Web media format, and be centered on the search engine.
“We serve 15 million streams a month of video,” he adds. “The ad avails in those streams are upwards of 50 million per month. We have a video library of over 15,000 assets, and it’s growing very rapidly. We pioneered the video search engine space three to four years ago with our acquisition of Singingfish. There are now 1.5 million third-party media assets that we can expose through that. We have many very good relationships with broadcasters and TV producers, so that we have the ability to search the assets of broadcast TV. Mostly we do deals where they send the assets directly to us so we can index them. For those that don’t have the capability to do that, we encode the material in real-time, running speech-to-text conversion to be able to find things in the search engine.”

Doesn’t this sound convenient? If you don’t have the capability to index your own assets, don’t worry, AOL will do it for you. (Same goes for Google, Yahoo!, TV Guide, the personal video recorder companies and such smaller start-ups as Blinkx, MeeVee and more.) And then, of course, they don’t need to do a deal with you, either!

Of course, if your company thought there might be some cash in this indexing thing, there might be a budget for it. The bean counters might check out’s Live 8 coverage for a clue. It should still be online for a few months, with nicely indexed video of every act, every song, spots that play in front of each video stream and well-priced downloads available. According to Blum, AOL’s media player is, “A streaming ad platform for targeted advertising, mostly using spots repurposed from broadcast TV. In addition, you can click on the ad and it will pause, like in TiVO, then you can interact with the ad element of interest and continue viewing the spot later. We can be targeted and measured far better than Nielsen, so the CPMs we get are twice what a TV network would get.”

Those media asset management database companies have been trying to convince you for years that a few hundred thousand dollars spent on their software and your logging labor each year would pay off someday in reusable assets. That someday is now.

Neal Weinstock is editor-in-chief of Weinstock Media Analysis and can be reached through