Earlier this week, I wrote about Sogou’s new method of integrating search results into its Chinese-language input method. I also gave the system a test run on my own computer, and came away pretty impressed. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think this move has the potential to change the way Chinese users search, and maybe even the way they interact with their computers on a more fundamental level.
Typing on the keyboard is probably the most fundamental way we interact with any computer, or for that matter almost any digital device. Voice recognition and dictation software might replace it someday, but as any Siri user knows, we’re definitely not there yet. And for Chinese users, input method software is simply a part of the typing process. Because Chinese is written in characters but keyboards tend to use the Latin alphabet, to type anything in Chinese you need software that interprets the phonetic sounds the user types (for example: baidu) into Chinese characters. But of course, many phoentic sounds have multiple possible interpretations, which means that input method software needs to include a graphical user interface (GUI) so that users can choose which baidu they meant (For example, 百度, 拜读, 摆渡, 白都, 败毒 and more would all be typed as baidu).
What that means is that Chinese users are used to clicking things from a GUI as they type. These days, many input methods have incredible predictive text algorithms that make it possible to type long sentences and have the correct characters filled in automatically, but no algorithm is perfect (or knows every proper noun) so some user intervention is always necessary. This is just a part of everyday computing for Chinese users on a more fundamental level than even, say, using a web browser.
How Sogou’s search input method works
So why is Sogou’s implantation of search results into its input method system so significant?
It moves the search war closer to users. Until now, Baidu, Qihoo, and Sogou have been battling for search supremacy mostly within the confines of the web browser. Now, Sogou has brought the war to users’ desktops, their word processors, and even competitors’ websites. If you allow it to, Sogou’s input method search will display the search results you’re looking for even when you’re typing in Baidu.com’s search bar. And since users are already in the habit of interacting with and clicking things in the input method software’s GUI, getting them to click on relevant search results isn’t that much of a stretch. If Sogou’s input method search catches on, Baidu and Qihoo may be forced to produce similar offerings. But neither company has nearly as strong a user base for their input method software as Sogou (in fact, Qihoo doesn’t have any input method product at all). By redefining the battlefield, Sogou has put itself in a strong position — at least, if it gets its users to adopt the new “smart” version of its software.
It feels like a natural extension of language input. When I read about this new feature, I’ll be honest — I was expecting it to be awful. The prospect of having search results pop up as I typed just seemed intrusive and annoying, and if it wasn’t my job, I probably wouldn’t even have bothered to download the software and try it out. But when I did try it, I was very pleasantly surprised. Because it gives you a great deal of leeway in defining where and how the search results pop up, it is simultaneously unobtrusive and convenient, and I could easily see it becoming a regular part of users’ computing experience. After all, why bother booting up a browser when you can just type the search term and see the results you want immediately, no matter what program you’re using?
Search is just the beginning. Sogou’s current implementation of input method search is limited to specific kinds of searches, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. In fact, it doesn’t have to stay search-oriented at all. Imagine simply typing the name of a brand’s product and then purchase that product directly from the desktop in the input method GUI. Or typing the name of a friend from inside any program to bring up a video chat with them, or even share your screen with them. The possibilites are virtually endless, and in moving into input method search, Sogou may have taken us one step closer to a world where users interact much more quickly with the web by not using a browser at all.
Of course, Sogou’s new search input method could just as easily lead to nothing at all. As it’s not a mandatory update to Sogou’s input method software — at least, not yet — many of Sogou’s users may not even know about it, and plenty who do know about it may choose not to download it because it sounds intrusive and pointless. And to be clear, while this product is cool, it isn’t going to change the world by itself. But is it the first step down a new path towards a new way of interacting with the internet? Call me a dreamer, but I think it could be.
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