John Paczkowski

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LIVE: Google Searchology

searchologyThe architects of Google search are holding court at company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., this morning offering what promises to be a sort of state of the union on the subject of search. Overseeing the event, dubbed “Google Searchology”: Udi Manber, VP of Search Engineering, and Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products and User Experience.

Gabriel Stricker, Google’s Director of Search Communications kicks things off by noting that the company will be sharing a number of new developments that cater to the growing demands of its users. With that, Udi Manber takes the stage to offer a big-picture overview of search.

Manber says what Google does is the new “rocket science.” Search has to be fast, relevant, and fresh, he explains. But even that’s not enough. The real goal is to solve users’ problems. If users can’t spell, it’s our problem. If the content is there but in a language the user doesn’t speak, that’s our problem. If the Web is too slow, it’s our problem. Manber offers a few examples of how Google works to address these challenges: real-time data, translation, etc. With these services nailed down, he says, Google can move on to the more important task of working on “understanding.”

wholeporblem

Manber invites Pat Riley, senior search quality engineer, to the stage to talk a bit about Google’s “did you mean” link. Lots of people use the link, Riley says, and Google has been working to improve it. Called “spellmillion,” the project provides not only related results for a misspelled query but for alternate ones as well (think labor as in “work” and labor as in “pregnancy”). But it requires Google to process multiple searches for a single query and demands a lot of processing power.

Riley notes that the project has been somewhat contentious because it also potentially questions user intent. He offers the example of “Macy Ray.” Some users might be searching for “Macy Gray,” the singer, others for a person actually named “Macy Ray.” How do you address those two potential queries on a single search results page?

macyray

Riley is followed by Engineering Director Scott Huffman, whose subject is mobile search. Huffman starts things off with a few truisms. Mobile search is often local. It should be easy to use. Effortless. And it should provide all that Google has to offer. Huffman notes that this is quite a task since Google must optimize its search for different mobile experiences and different user interfaces: Google’s own Android, Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, etc. Some of these platforms require gestures–touch, swipe–others use a keypad. All must provide access to the Web and the mobile Web–sites that have been optimized for mobile devices. On the screen behind him, Huffman displays an example of Google search that displays desktop Web results and mobile Web results, the latter denoted by a red square.

web_mobileweb

Mobile search must also be easy. Huffman demos a shared desktop-mobile search for a flight number. Since he’s logged into his Google account, his search for “ba 284? SF-London on the desktop is immediately shared with the Google app on his mobile device. An unreleased feature, but it’s on its way. A quick look at local listings automatically delivered to devices on the basis on GPS/cell tower location, and then Huffman brings Mayer on stage.

Mayer talks a bit about universal search before moving on to Google’s “bento box” of search results. She talks about Google’s focus on the importance of presentation and its efforts to make search results more usable for the user. An example of this SearchWiki, a tool that allows users to annotate their searches, to “keep their train of thought,” says Mayer. We need to help our users find more and do more with it, she says, noting that the company is still working to address some longstanding user problems:

  • Finding recent information
  • Expressing that you want just one type of result
  • Assessing which results are best
  • Knowing what you’re looking for
  • Expressing your searches in keywords

searchoptions
Mayer introduces Google Search Options, a feature that appends a search option panel to results, allowing users to “slice and dice” the results as they choose. A demo of the feature, in a search for “Hubble Telescope,” allows for search calibration by time, pages that include images, etc. Another search for “solar oven” is filtered down to specific genres–videos, discussion forums, reviews. Click on those links and that new search context is immediately displayed on the page.

Interestingly, the reviews feature uses something called “sentiment analysis” to extract sentiments from a review and present them in displayed snippets.

searchoptions1

Search Options also includes a timeline feature that allows users to visualize results over time. And there’s something called “Wonder Wheel,” which presents a visual representation of a query surrounded by potential refinements (hence “Wonder Wheel”). Click on a refinement and results update automatically. Search Options should be going live now, says Mayer.

wonderwheel

A bit of geometry monomania here today at Google Searchology. First the Wonder Wheel and now “Google Squared,” a sort of spreadsheet visualization of search being cooked up in Google Labs. Unstructured data pulled directly from search and organized according to the whim of the user. A search for “small dogs” pulls up a lists of–wonder of wonders–small dogs organized by size, weight, breed, etc. Click on an individual cell and you can change its source. Pretty slick. Still a work in progress, though. It should be available later this month, Mayer says during the Q&A.

Another new feature: Rich Snippets. A search for “drooling dog BBQ” returns your standard Google results along with a list of metadata–average user reviews, for example. A search for a GPS system includes an additional pointer to a recent CNET review of the unit in question. Rich Snippets is open API, incidentally.
richsnippets

Last up, an Android star map app that uses GPS to create a star map “local to your place on earth” and to your position. Move the phone and the map adjusts to your view–essentially the app transforms the device into map overlay for the sky. And how does this tie into search? Search for “Gemini” and a sort of pointer appears onscreen directing you to its location in the sky. And with that, Mayer wraps things up.


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