Google answers questions with new feature


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Google Inc., the world’s most powerful Internet company, is always looking for ways to make search smarter.

The latest iteration after nearly a decade of search market dominance: A new feature that helps give more robust answers to common questions.


Listening to ‘Abbey Road’ and wondering when John Lennon died? Type the query and get the answer: Dec. 8, 1980. Visiting New York City and wondering how tall the Empire State Building is? 1,250 feet. Studying for a test on the Industrial Revolution? Find out who invented the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell) or who invented the cotton gin (Eli Whitney).

Google began highlighting answers to these types of searches in snippets three months ago. Now it has expanded that effort to give more accurate answers on top of search results. Think of it as the perfect companion for Trivial Pursuit or a night out drinking with friends.

Why does Google keep tweaking its famed algorithm? Because a slew of competitors, large and small, are still trying to unseat the company which has defined its mission as organizing the world’s information. Facebook, for example, is pushing the idea that people would rather get information from their friends. Twitter has unveiled the concept of real-time search that taps into the latest chatter. Together they and others are challenging the formidable intelligence of Google’s algorithm, which, it contends, delivers the most accurate results.

Part of Google’s effort to keep doing that is Google Squared, which launched a year ago. Google Squared was a first attempt to find and extract structured data from across the Web. A team of Google engineers in New York has worked to improve the technology and add new features, such as the ability to sort data and export it.

Now, using that technology, Google has improved the accuracy of answers and has given users easy access to the sources of those answers, said Noah Weiss, product manager for Google Squared. Users will be able to access that feature from their desktops Wednesday and via their phones within the next week.

Google will be able to deliver millions of these fact-seeking searches because the feature relies on an algorithmic understanding of Web pages, Weiss said.


“It’s all basically coming out of research to understand the Web better,” Weiss said.

Here’s how it works. Say you want to know when Catherine Zeta-Jones was born. You enter that query into the search box. You will get the following result: 25 September 1969. If you click the “show sources” button, you will see all of the websites that provided that information, including the relevant excerpt.

Google is trying to fulfill one of the early promises of the Web: that you can ask a simple question and get a quick answer.

“We don’t want to give you a list of 10 blue links. We want to highlight the information that answers your query,” Jack Menzel, group product manager for search, said.

The new feature works on a wide range of queries that are short, simple and definitive. What remains to be seen is how quickly and easily Google will be able to fetch answers to more complicated questions.

“We are making strides toward understanding more and more information and getting better and better answers,” Menzel said.

Google Squared is increasingly powering features in Google’s search engine. It was behind the “something different” feature that Google unveiled last week as part of its makeover.


--Jessica Guynn