Mountain View (CA) – Google’s core search engine has been walking down an evolutionary path, with new functionality being integrated almost silently over the course of the past years. At least for today, the perception of a gradually improving search engine has changed: Google announced a wave of new features that go well beyond integrated search: There is a new contextual search, access to experimental search features as well as an upcoming cross-language platform, which could bridge search results between different languages.
There have been very few instances in the past, during which Google showed its determination to protect its core search product. The foundation of the company’s success, it appears, has been taken granted not only by users but also by Google’s marketing staff. Improvements to the basic search were quietly introduced, while the diversification of the company’s product portfolio received plenty of space for marketing and public relations.
Today’s search-ology event was different and seemed to reflect a more aggressive Google that wants to make sure that we do not forget Google Search and how much time and resources it takes to improve the market leading search engine.
Universal Search, announced today, may be the most obvious move for the company to defend itself against advances from Microsoft and Yahoo. But while the vertical integration of its separate search engines (books, local, images, news, video) show that Google apparently has found a solution to the monumental task of running multiple queries through multiple indices in the same time as running one query through one index, this move was really just a matter of time.
A much better indicator of where Google stands today and where it may be in one, two years are features that have been or will be integrated into the core search engine down the road. For one, Google now has a contextual search functionality that has been overdue for some time. A new field placed on top of the first search results allows users to find search results in other indices (such as books, news, code, images, etc) with a simple click, just in case the main search does not turn up the results the user is looking for. The company also has introduced a new navigation bar on each of its search properties, which enables easier access to Google sites that more or less have been buried in the past – such as Gmail. Expect Google’s front page to become more and more the entry-point to a portal-like destination, on which users could be spending much more time in the future than they are today.
Also new is an extension of Google’s Labs. With “Experimental”, Google plans to learn more about how users are reacting to its ideas, rather than just enabling access to its beta applications through its “Labs” site. Among the Experimental applications are new features that arrange search results in new ways, such as in a timeline or within a geographic map. Also, Google now offers keyboard shortcuts, left-hand navigation as well as a contextual search as it has been offered for example by Ask.com for some time now. Once users have signed up for the Experimental site, the features are automatically available in their default search, Google said.
A feature that carries the potential to have the most dramatic impact on Google is what the company calls “cross-language information retrieval.” Vice president Udi Manber explained that this feature initially will translate search queries in twelve different languages and return search results from websites in those twelve languages to provide a more comprehensive search experience. He said that the Google translation “will not be perfect, but if you are looking for information, the information will be there.” According to Manber, cross-language information retrieval carries the potential to “open the web universally.”
One of the key challenges Google faces is not just to develop these features, but evolve its page ranking system and ensure that more and more search results are still presented in a relevant way. In the end, this feature has enabled Google to jump ahead of its competitors more than five years ago and still remains the secret sauce to its success. “Search is not just about math and matching words,” Manber said. “Search is about understanding users, queries and content. That is what makes it challenging.”