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Matt Hines

Staff Writer, CNET

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–Search engine providers are working to catalog every corner of the Web, but what they really want is to get a better idea of what’s going on in your mind.

A panel of industry executives gathered to speak at the Harvard Business School’s ongoing Cyberposium conference here Saturday roundly endorsed the idea that making search tools more relevant in customers’ lives will be the most important factor in driving their companies’ success.

“Our future products will be defined not by what we feel users need, but rather by what sort of information they really want to find,” said Rahul Lahiri, vice president of search and product management at Ask Jeeves. “People are usually coming to us looking for a specific answer. The focus for us can’t only be on adding new kinds of content, like audio or video, to search–it has to be centered on what the users are really looking for.”

Other companies represented at the conference included search heavyweights Google, Yahoo and MSN. And despite their different approaches to developing search tools, the executives here agreed that it will be ordinary folk outside the industry that have the most influence on its continued development.

Initiatives focused on the push to create a more personalized search engine are already under way at all of the companies represented at the conference. The experts said that garnering more involvement from people doing searches, and persuading those people to trust the companies with greater amounts of personal data, will be crucial to future search technology.

Bradley Horowitz, director of media search at Yahoo, said that his company’s portal approach, in which it offers an array of personal services such as Web-based e-mail and shopping, in addition to search capabilities, is helping to convince customers that they can help shape new offerings.

“The user is expanding the amount of personal data they share with us in the form of their address books, e-mail accounts, or their shopping habits,” Horowitz said. “By gathering this information we already have and studying that behavior, we can see a significant opportunity to apply the existing user relationship into new tools.”

And the personalization trend won’t apply just to creating new search engines, according to the experts. By allowing people’s online habits and preferences to influence advertising, a key source of revenue for search companies, the speakers said, everyone involved will benefit.

To many eyes, Google has led the way in tailoring its strategy to meet the needs of both users and advertisers, with the success of its AdWords and AdSense programs. Even the executives representing Google’s rivals in the discussion conceded that by clearly separating its search results from its ads, the market leader made sizable headway in winning users’ trust.

“Google led the way in clarity in advertising,” said Mark Kroese, general manager of information services at Microsoft’s MSN. “We weren’t separating results (from ads) a year and a half ago, and since we’ve begun doing so, the response from both users and advertisers has been huge. Google proved that if you have clarity, people respond.”

Most of the executives conceded that the technology to build personalized search tools already exists, and they said the fight to persuade people to share more personal information is what stands in the way of new products.

“(Personalization) isn’t an area where the technology isn’t ready, where there’s a need for a lot of innovation,” said Ask Jeeves’ Lahiri. “The question is, are people willing to give up (more information) to get a better search engine back in return? Only time will tell.”