The Wall Street Journal is out with a story saying that Google is about to make one of the biggest changes in its history of offering web search, providing more direct answers and gaining “semantic” smarts to understand more about what words mean. I’m scratching my head, since Google already does this. Methinks Google’s PR has exploded in ways it didn’t expect.
Beyond Blue Links!
From the story, we learn things such as:
Over the next few months, Google’s search engine will begin spitting out more than a list of blue Web links. It will also present more facts and direct answers to queries at the top of the search-results page.
The company is aiming to provide more relevant results by incorporating technology called “semantic search,” which refers to the process of understanding the actual meaning of words.
Amit Singhal, a top Google search executive, said in a recent interview that the search engine will better match search queries with a database containing hundreds of millions of “entities”—people, places and things—which the company has quietly amassed in the past two years. Semantic search can help associate different words with one another, such as a company (Google) with its founders ( Larry Page and Sergey Brin).
Be sure to read the full article. I don’t want to be doing too many extended quotes out of it. But having read it several times myself, I keep trying to understand what’s new here.
Google’s Existing Semantic Search & Direct Answers
Google’s arguably been doing semantic search since 2003, when it began searching for synonyms of the words actually entered. It has increased its understanding of the meaning of words over the years and even did a detailed blog post about this in 2010. Here’s another from 2009:
Starting today, we’re deploying a new technology that can better understand associations and concepts related to your search, and one of its first applications lets us offer you even more useful related searches (the terms found at the bottom, and sometimes at the top, of the search results page).
For example, if you search for [principles of physics], our algorithms understand that “angular momentum,” “special relativity,” “big bang” and “quantum mechanic” are related terms that could help you find what you need.
As for “spitting out” those “facts and direct answers” that the WSJ story talks about, Google’s been doing that for so long that it’s hard for me to even know exactly when it all began.
Meet The Google OneBox, Plus Box, Direct Answers & The 10-Pack from 2009 covers how direct answers were provided in response to a variety of searches, and many of these answers were already integrated into Google for years before that was written.
Here’s Google blogging about “Just the facts, fast” in 2005:
Have you ever needed a piece of info right now? Today we’re excited to introduce Google Q&A.
We’ve pulled together facts from all over the Web to help give you the fastest possible access to the quick bits of information you need every day; just type a query into the search box, and you’ll get back the answer at the top of your search results. Q&A knows about a lot of areas: celebrities, countries of the world, the planets, the elements, electronics, movies, and anything else we’ve thought of so far (including enabling you to get answers on your mobile device).
Try it out, and keep checking back. This is only the beginning.
Google Squared Still Lives
How about extracting facts from pages, to figure out things like the inventor of the telephone or when a movie release will happen. Google touted doing all this using its Google Squared technology in 2010. See here on the Google blog and our own stories:
By the way, Google even was offering facts like the sexual orientation of celebrities, though this was dropped last year.
Honestly, it sounds like Google is just going to ramp up showing results that come from its Google Squared technology, as well as what’s been built since its Freebase / Metaweb acquistion. The WSJ mentions the latter, but not Google Squared:
But the newest change is expected to go much further, coming as a result of Google’s acquisition in 2010 start-up Metaweb Technologies, which had an index of 12 million entities, such as movies, books, companies and celebrities….
Mr. Singhal said Google and the Metaweb team, which then numbered around 50 software engineers, have since expanded the size of the index to more than 200 million entities, partly by developing “extraction algorithms,” or mathematical formulas that can organize data scattered across the Web.
It also approached organizations and government agencies to obtain access to databases, including the CIA World Factbook, which houses up-to-date encyclopedic information about countries worldwide.
Google Squared was closed as a stand-alone service last year, but the technology has remained a part of Google search. These articles explain more about it:
Why If There’s PR Smoke, There Might Be No Fire
If all this isn’t really new, why’s it getting played up so big with the Wall Street Journal, as well as Mashable last month? Mashable even quoted Google talking about its “knowledge graph” for the first time that I’ve seen.
My take is that Google’s pushing these technologies for some good PR, and they are in turn being blown up out of proportion to what will really happen.
Google’s been under intense pressure in some quarters since rolling out Search Plus Your World, pressure that its results aren’t as good as in the past. It’s helpful to counter that type of bad PR with interviews talking up forward-looking technologies. Heck, it’s right out of Bing’s playbook.
Remember Bing & Powerset?
If you believed all the forward-looking stuff that Bing has pushed, you’d have expected Google to have been a whimpering child of a search engine cowering in the corner, at this point.
Why remember Powerset, with all that amazing semantic technology that Bing later acquired? Here, read up on it:
Sure, Powerset is part of Bing. Did you notice it making Bing significantly better than Google? Has Bing drawn tons more people over to it from Google for having that technology?
Nope. But that doesn’t stop Bing from talking it up, though it seems to have done less of that lately. Powerset is good technology to have. It might lead to important future improvements. But no instant revolution is about to pour forth from it, nor has it.
Remember Bing & Wolfram Alpha?
Heck, remember when Wolfram Alpha partnered up with Bing? This was after Wolfram Alpha’s factually-based search engine failed to wipe Google off the map, as some assumed it would. Here are some reminders of that:
For all that the direct answers were supposed to be important, I can’t even get Bing to trigger some of the examples it touted when linking up with Wolfram Alpha.
Make no mistake. Wolfram Alpha is a cool, useful search engine. In fact, I had a long, excellent conversation with Stephen Wolfram on Monday while at the SXSW conference about how things are going and some interesting things to come. Stay tuned.
But it’s important to distinguish between what’s put out as PR versus what’s likely to happen in reality. Bing’s done a lot of big talk, and when that big talk has done nothing to stall Google’s market share, it still keeps talking big. This past piece from me explains more about that:
Why’s Google Talking Big?
Google’s doing some big talk of its own now, which as I said, is probably being interpreted as even bigger than it really is. But why this specific talk about direct answers and understanding?
For one, Google shot itself in the foot last year. At the D Conference, WSJ tech columnist Walt Mossberg pointed out to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt that Google didn’t do as good as job as Bing in providing direct answers. And Schmidt agreed! From my coverage then:
Mossberg said that Bing seems to have more direct answers in some cases.
“There’s that in some narrow cases,” Schmidt said.
There you go — one of the top three execs at Google admitting that Bing beats Google, even if it’s in a narrow case. I’m sure there have been some statements like that before, but they’re few and far between.
It was crazy. Mossberg wasn’t right. What the hell is “some” cases supposed to mean. In “some” other cases, Google has more. But overall, no one has any idea who provides more direct answers, much less meaningful direct answers. No one. Mossberg didn’t inventory this himself. There’s no third-party survey out there. It’s not like there’s some “direct answers app store” listing answers that you can count.
That was just Mossberg, in my view, saying what he believed in his gut. It was Schmidt, to me, kind of cowering against Mossberg. He is, after all, Walt Mossberg. You don’t just tell him he’s wrong. Even if he is.
As a result, Google positioned itself as being weak to the leading tech journalist on the planet. How do you pull yourself out of that?
The Siri Problem
I know! Maybe you start talking about all those direct answers you’re going to do? Make sure you do that fairly quickly, because you’ve got another problem brewing.
While your latest Android 4 mobile operating system has arguably made it harder for people to search by voice — and while most Android phones still haven’t been upgraded to it — those iPhone 4S phones all equipped with Siri sold like hotcakes.
What’s Siri doing? Sending some of the searches people do not to you (as you’d think that deal you have with Apple would require) but instead over to Yelp and Wolfram Alpha.
You know, like 25 percent of the voice searches people are doing with Siri. That’s a lot of searches.
The press noticed that. They also noticed when Apple distanced itself from Google Maps in the latest version of iOS. You even had a financial analyst trying to figure if the end of a Google-Apple deal would harm Google’s bottom line. That got press attention, too.
If you’re Google looking at all this, it becomes even more important to start talking about how you have this Wolfram Alpha-like fact engine that you’re churning up. Heck, you even rolled out a Wolfram Alpha-like graphical math calculator last year.
What To Expect
To sum up, Google’s already said several times over the past year or so that it would be providing more and more direct answers. It sounds like that’s the biggest thing that’s likely to be released in the coming months.
Those direct answers potentially take traffic away from a relatively small set of sites that try to serve up direct answers, such as the height of Mount McKinley. That’s sad for those sites, but it’s good for the searcher. And it shouldn’t impact the much larger set of sites out there with broader information.
Indeed, you can already see this now:
You can see the direct answer at the top. The three arrows from that area show how some of the sources also get surfaced as regular results. Below that, the fourth arrow highlights how another site appears.
Having the direct answer might prevent some searchers from clicking through to any of these. But with the answer already in some of the page descriptions, they probably weren’t clicking much already.
There have also been reports that Google’s working on a better version of Google Voice Actions, a version that’s more assistant-like, in the way Siri is. It might even get called Majel. That sounds reasonable, especially given how long various Googlers have talked about wanting to have a Star Trek-like computer (as voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry).
But in the end, for all that the search engines have talked for years about going beyond “10 blue links,” I’d be surprised if the changes the WSJ story today talks about dramatically alter what we see now on Google. More answers, sure. But those 10 blue links will still likely remain the core of what’s shown.
For Google’s part, when I emailed for any comment, it replied with: “We have nothing specific to announce at this time.”
I’ll be following up to see if I can pry anything more on-the-record about this.
Postscript: Google’s Amit Singhal, who heads Google’s search efforts and who was cited in the WSJ story, has posted to Google+ to say:
Some recent news coverage about Google has sparked interest in where we are and where we’re headed in search.
Let me just say that every day, we’re improving our ability to give you the best answers to your questions as quickly as possible. In doing so, we convert raw data into knowledge for millions of users around the world. But our ability to deliver this experience is a function of our understanding your question and also truly understanding all the data that’s out there. And right now, our understanding is pretty darn limited. Ask us for “the 10 deepest lakes in the U.S,” and we’ll give you decent results based on those keywords, but not necessarily because we understand what depth is or what a lake is.
In 2010, we acquired Freebase, an open-source knowledge graph, and in the time since we’ve grown it from 12 million interconnected entities and attributes to over 200 million. Our vision for this knowledge graph is as a tool to aid the creation of more knowledge — an endless cycle of creativity and insight.
But as I explained in an interview last month [ED note: the Mashable interview I mentioned above], our initial steps towards this virtuous cycle are indeed baby steps. So stay tuned for updates on what will continue to be a long road ahead.
The last part is key in all this: “the long road ahead.” I think that underscores the point of what I’ve written, that you’re unlikely to see a massive change to how Google search looks and operates in the near term.
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