Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Google unveils new search tools

Google said in its quest to create the perfect search engine, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

The company's comments came at an event billed as a "state of the union" on search as it unveiled new products that aim to push search in a new direction.

Google has over 63% of the US market compared to rival Yahoo with 20%.

"The race in search is far from over and innovation and continued improvement is absolutely pivotal," said Google's Marissa Mayer.

"I've said this many times but search is still in its infancy. Our engineers are worried about what is the next big thing in search and how are they going to find it," said Ms Mayer who is the vice president of search products and user experience.

She said last year Google released over 365 products and in the first quarter of this year it was 120. Ms Mayer added that this was proof that "Google gets better all the time."

Google has in the past said that despite its lead in the marketplace, users were "one click away" from switching to other alternatives.

Vanessa Fox of SearchEngineLand told the BBC that Google's ability to constantly innovate gives them a leading edge.

"Google is saying we have to provide for all searchers and do things at scale. It means they have to launch all sorts of features while some companies can concentrate on just one thing. The key thing behind why they are still ahead is because they are able to innovate at such a pace," said Ms Fox.

Google Squared

During the "Searchology" event at Google's Mountain View headquarters, Ms Mayer and her team showcased four new products that she said would give users a "different way to look at the web."

One of the more experimental was called Google Squared which will go public in the next month or so. It takes information from the web and displays it in a spreadsheet in "split seconds," something Ms Mayer said would normally take someone a half a day to do.

During the demonstration, a query for "small dog" was typed into the search box. Seconds later a table popped up showing photographs of various dogs, their origin, weight and height in a clear and simple layout.

While Ms Mayer described this product as "transformative" she would only hint at the specific techniques that Google uses to drive this feature.

"I think we can open the kimono a little bit without talking about the computer science behind it.

"What they are basically doing is looking for structures on the web that seem to imply facts. Like something 'is' something.

"Different tables, different structures, and then corroborating the evidence around whether or not something is a fact by looking at whether that fact occurs across pages.

"This is all in the secret sauce of what we are doing and it takes an incredible amount of compute power to create those squares," said Ms Mayer.

"Refine, filter and view"

Google Search Options is a tool that is aimed at letting users "slice and dice" results so they can manipulate the information and get what they want faster.

They come into play after a normal web search and allow users to drill down into the results by offering an option for different genres like product reviews, forum posts or videos. Other choices include recently added blogs, images, timelines and so on.

Ms Mayer said this new feature should help people who struggle with the "vexing" problem of exactly what query they should type into the search box.

It is meant to give users the opportunity to "refine, filter and view results in a different way."

Another feature is called "Rich Snippets" which are search results that return more information in every listing.

For example, users looking for reviews of a new restaurant might get a "rich snippet" of average review scores, number of reviews and the restaurant's price range.

"This is a step toward making the whole internet smarter," said Google product manager Kavi Goel.


A final feature had Ms Mayer "reaching for the stars" with an app for mobile phones using the Android operating system.

"For a long time here at Google we joked could we actually find physical things like keys and now with the power and technology of Android, coupled with search, you can see we are starting to find some physical things like stars," said Ms Mayer.

Skymap displays the constellations. By using the smart phone's GPS capability, it offers the user a dynamic star map that knows where they are standing and which way they are pointing

The feature came about as a result of Google's 20% time that allows engineers to spend one fifth of their time working on pet projects.

The app is now available on the Android app market.

"Clearly Google is still pushing the envelope with all these new additions," said Rob Hof, Silicon Valley editor of Business Week.

"They are certainly continuing to improve daily. Whether it makes a difference and will stave off the competition, I don't know. But they are not standing still."

Ms Mayer said keeping the user happy is at the heart of everything they do.

"There is a shoe company called Stuart Weitzman and their slogan is "a little obsessed with shoes."

"Google is a little more than obsessed with search," confessed Ms Mayer.

By: Maggie Shiels
Technology Reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

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