Google’s ‘universal search’ to integrate results

Google on Wednesday announced a major restructuring of its online presence that will integrate regular Web page search results with news stories, blogs, videos, maps and several other products.

Universal search, as Google executives described it, will also include contextual navigation links in case users still want to search for only Web pages, videos or books. Its Gmail messaging service will also be available off its home page for the first time. Executives announced the changes via Webcast from its corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Like many enterprise companies, Google has traditionally indexed content in separate areas for various forms of content, said Marissa Mayer, its vice-president of search products and user experience. Running searches through all those indexes was computationally intensive, which meant Google had to develop new infrastructure and algorithms to support universal search. Google has also created what Mayer called a new “scoring function” to ensure the universal search results are relevant.

“You don’t want to put customers into a situation where they’re saying, ‘If I were Google, where would I put the video?’” she said. “We want to list the 10 best answers – not just the 10 best URLs.”

Mayer demonstrated how searching for restaurants in Mountain View, Calif., for example, would integrate a Google Map directly in the results, along with phone numbers, address, ratings and reviews. A search for “Nosferatu,” meanwhile, would include not only the regular listing from the Internet Movie Database site but the entire 84-minute movie uploaded on Google Video.

Google is also planning to deliver a service based on cross-language information retrieval (CLIR) that will make it easier for users to make queries in their mother tongue, said Udi Manber, the firm’s vice-president of engineering. The initial service will include 12 languages, which Manber did not name. Queries in those languages will be translated into English by Google, which will find the results and translate them back into the language of the user. “That by itself opens the Web to the whole world,” Manber said. “There’s a much better chance you’ll get your result.”

Google regularly evaluates thousands of queries, Manber said, and a great deal of how it searches for its results is based on an understanding of how human beings think. “Search is about people, about their experience, it’s not just about the math,” he said, adding that 20 to 25 per cent of queries being made on Google today have never been made before. This makes the search engine industry’s job much harder. “Think of common queries like IBM, and we give you the IBM home page. But then, when you talk about queries that are so rare they happen once in a lifetime, we have to answer those as well.”

Manber showed how Google tried to put context around queries. A search for “GM,” for example, might refer to General Motors or genetically modified foods. A search for “b&b ab,” meanwhile, might refer to a bed-and-breakfast inn in Alberta, he said, or it could refer to Ramstein Air Base. A great deal of effort goes towards guessing whether a search for “unchanged lyrics Van Halen” is really a search for Van Halen’s “Unchained.”

“Context counts,” Manber said.

One of the biggest challenges around universal search, according to Mayer, was figuring out how to display the results. The firm came up with its own jargon – fixed placement, variable, or interweaved – to describe results that were sorted in different ways. “In the end, we decided the way users want to see results is in an ordered list,” she said.

Universal search will be part of a broad initiative at Google, which hopes to increase its relevance over time, Mayer added.

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