A New York Times article this week, entitled "From Search, to Fetch," describes moves by both Google and Bing to get you to an answer faster. Called the "Knowledge Graph" by Google and "Snapshot" by Bing, you'll find that searches for certain types of information will now bring you a highly summarized presentation of key facts without needing to click on any of the links shown in the search results.
As the article concludes:
Both Microsoft and Google stress that these developments are but the first timid steps into a beautiful future - a future where search pages know what you mean, display exactly the information you want with one click, and even perform tasks for you. These companies are no longer happy serving only as the card catalog for the Web; now they even want to bring you the book.
More interesting to me, however, is that only in a small percentage of cases will Google (courtesy of Google Books) truly bring you the book. In the majority of cases, what Google will bring you is data. And where do these data come from? Third-party databases.
This is just one more example of search engines tacitly acknowledging the value of structured and semi-structured content. As importantly, Google is also acknowledging that some content sources are more dependable and trustworthy than others. Yes, Google is now featuring content that hasn't been selected by algorithms, but rather by humans basing their decisions in large part on the brand reputation of the content provider. Bing is presumably operating the same way.
Google so far is limiting itself to free third-party data sources such as Freebase, the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia, among others. The data sources used by Bing aren't disclosed, but Snapshot reportedly is a bit more commercially oriented, providing summarized data on hotels, restaurants, bands, events, etc. I think it is quite likely Bing is already licensing some of this content from third parties.
The potentially great outcome is that with the arms race mentality of Bing and Google, one or both may start licensing more content in an attempt to offer the most compelling search experience. That's good for those publishers willing to be paid a large fee to make some or all of their content broadly available for free (and what a great ride that was for many publishers during the dot com boom). The losers in this scenario are those data products with commoditized content. For those publishers with expensive, specialized and proprietary content, it's a mixed scenario. Some may experience neither benefit nor harm. Others may find that exposing a taste of their data for free can yield tremendous levels of exposure that can drive new sales.
The way I see it, the search engines continue to evolve from information indexers to information distributors. And this could be a very fine evolution indeed.