At Google’s Searchology event, executives give search ‘state of the union’


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Updated, 12:26 p.m.: Finally, Google introduced a new project to highlight the evolution of mobile search. This was a nifty Android application called Skymap. The app was presented by engineer John Taylor, whose Pittsburgh team built the application in their ‘20% time.’

Skymap displays the constellations -- but it’s more than just a standard star map. The application uses the smart phone’s GPS capability, as well as its compass and accelerometer, to offer the user a dynamic star map that knows where you’re standing, and which way you’re pointing.


To demonstrate how the map worked, Taylor used the phone to find Mayer’s star sign (Gemini, her birthday is next month). He roteted the phone gingerly until it was pointing directly at the Gemini constellation. ‘You found gemini,’ read the screen.

The application is launching today on the Android app market.

Updated, 12:01 p.m.: Mayer continued, “How can we take the kind of multidimensional attributes that we saw in Google Squared and build them into our search results?”

The answer is what Google calls “rich snippets,” a way to help users decide better whether a given result was worth clicking on before they clicked.

The trick is to give webmasters an easy way to add useful core details to their site’s search results. If you’re Yelp, that might mean adding a “star” rating to every restaurant’s entry, along with the number of reviews. If you’re LinkedIn, where there can be dozens of people with similar names, you might want to show searchers where all the “John Smiths” are from so they don’t have to click every entry looking for the right one.

Google is using two different open standards to allow webmasters to add the rich data, called RDFa and Microformats. Any site can implement the standards, and any search engine can mine them.

“This is a step toward making the whole Internet smarter,” said Kavi Goel, the engineer presenting the feature.


Updated, 11:39 a.m.: Google Squared, which will be available on Google Labs later this month, creates a spreadsheet (hence the squares) of information related to a specific query.

The series of rows and columns displayed when you search for something will contain various categories of information grabbed from around the Web, all tailored to a specific topic. If you were to search for ‘small dogs,’ for instance, you might get back a grid with dog names, descriptions, photos and average weights. You’re also able to request specific additions to the grid -- for instance, if the dog breed you were looking for didn’t appear in the grid, you can ask for it: ‘beagle.’ And if a type of value you were looking for didn’t appear, you can ask for that too: ‘average lifespan.’

An audience member at Searchology asked if all the information Google was harnessing to make these spreadsheets created copyright worries. Mayer noted that, just as with other Google products such as News, Google was looking to create a transformative view of the Web. In other words, it’s not simply copying the information. The Squared service, she said, is a way for Google to scour the Web for implicit structures of data -- like all the stuff about dogs -- and pull it all together so users can have it in one place. And, just like with Google News, she said, Squared will drive clicks back to the original site.

Updated, 11:05 a.m.: Marissa Mayer and her team are introducing new features to Google’s search results.

Via a tool called ‘search options,’ (video here) users can now quickly ‘slice and dice’ their search results in a variety of new ways.

On the results page, you can click ‘show options,’ for example, on a search of ‘solar ovens.’ You can then quickly filter the results to see video entries, entries from discussion forums and even user reviews that have undergone ‘sentiment analysis’ -- that is, whether the reviewer liked the product (a solar oven) or not.

Also included on the search options is a feature called ‘wonder wheel,’ where Google will draw a simple topic diagram that connects your search query to similar topics. For ‘solar oven,’ you might be given the option to search ‘how solar ovens work,’ or ‘homemade solar ovens.’

At the outset of Google’s second Searchology event today, where Google showcases improvements to its search mechanism, Vice President of Search Engineering Udi Manber started juggling some eggs.

A moment before that, Manber explained that both Google and search technology had come a long way since the early days.

‘When I started doing search 20 years ago, and when search started 40 or 50 years ago, the main problem was just getting enough storage, enough access – just putting it there and being able to take it out.’

‘We’re now in a position where these problems are much easier for us,” he said. “So we can concentrate on starting to understand.”

The first theme of the event had emerged: Google now feels that many of the early technical hurdles that plagued search engineers, and limited the speed and efficacy of search, have now melted into the past. That’s allowing search wizards to concentrate on the fundamental problem of search: figuring out exactly what people are looking for, and getting it to them immediately.

“So now I want to highlight that fact that we’re at the beginning of understanding. And what better way to highlight beginnings…”

... than juggling eggs.

Check back for updates as the Searchology event continues. Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience, is scheduled to show off some new search products soon.

-- David Sarno