Google Labs Cooks Up New Recipes for Web Wandering

Google launched on Tuesday a series of new search features that letusers integrate options for displaying and analyzing their searchresults beyond the traditional listing of keyword hits ranked byassumed relevance.

The new services are part of a platform of additional features Googleis developing and will make live in the future, though it offered no set timetable. The innovationsannounced at Google’s Searchology event are the Search Options Panel,the Wonder Wheel, Rich Snippets and Google Squared.

Google announced its new search features around the same time news emerged that another search engine, Wolfram|Alpha, would go public in a matter of days. Wolfram|Alpha, by Wolfram Research, is a new search service that attempts to bring a measure of artificial intelligence to traditional Internetsearching.

“‘Artificial intelligence’ is a loaded term,” NunduJanakiram, product manager at Google, told TechNewsWorld. “It means a lot of differentthings to different people. We think of it in terms of trying tounderstand the Web and users’ needs in whatever form it takes.”

New Features

Although Google announced a series of enhancements, only two of thepromised new features — the Search Options Panel and the Wonder Wheel –are available now. Rich Snippets, a content-tagging function for webmasters, is not a feature consumers can readily use. Google Squared,another data display option, will go live later this month, accordingto Janakiram.

The Search Options Panel is a way for users to refine, filter andreview the results in a variety of different ways on the same searchpage. It is accessible by clicking the Show Options link at the top ofthe standard search results list.

Google Squared displays search content in a spreadsheet-like format.It will be accessible from the Google Labs page. Its status as alab feature makes it more of a trial tool until the kinks areworked out.

Google Philosophy

“The common theme with these new search tools is trying to get ourusers to do more with searches,” said Janakiram. “What’s really cool is that the coresearch experience doesn’t change. Users still get the same list ofresults. Now they can slice and dice the results in more meaningfulways to them.”

For instance, a user may only want to see information on a searchtopic found in a discussion forum, or videos or reviews. Anotheroption within lets users bring in images and look atthem next to a text display, he explained.

Google’s key message in introducing new features is that both Googleand its users are able to experiment with new options and new forms ofvisualization, said Janakiram.

“Users are getting more sophisticated and the Web is getting morecomplex,” he observed. “There [are] often things you want to search for but can’t dowith simple keywords. So the search options panel is the next step.”

More Details

Google will use the search panel as the landing zone for upcoming newfeatures. It will be a living area for new features, according toJanakiram.

One of the options in the search results panel is the Recent Developmentsfeature. Google developed a new algorithm to show both the timelinessand the relevancy of the results of a given search, he said.

The Wonder Wheel resulted from a Google engineer who wondered what itwould be like to turn search results into a pie chart. Key words from thestandard results list fan out in a circular chart. Users can click ondifferent links in the chart to expand the search results and visualizedata in a new way.

When the Google Squared feature is available, users will see thesearch results fill up rows and columns automatically in a spreadsheetdisplay. Users can work with the data much as they can manipulate data entered intospreadsheet cells. The data can then be saved to the user’s Googleaccount for later use.

“The Generalized Abstraction Model is a really cool piece oftechnology [in Google Squared]. You can add rows and add columnsand fix data points that may be incorrect and see the sources they arecoming from,” Janakiram explained.

Tag, You’re It

The Rich Snippets feature allows webmasters tag up their sites withmetadata that explains what the content is. Because Google issupporting open standards, webmasters who place tags on their sites will beable to have them interpreted regardless of the crawlers used, accordingto Janakiram.

“We really feel that this will make the Internet better in the longterm,” he said.

With the Web’s ever-growing complexity andusers’ more-complicated questions, the challenge for Google ishow to fulfill user needs in a simple way, noted Janakiram.

Industry Benefit

Some, if not all, of Google’s enhancements could be replicated by othersearch companies. These new options do not change the data that usersreceive from their keyword search. They simply give the user moreways to view the information. User experience changessuch as these should be relatively easy for a major search player,according to Jim Anderson, CTO ofSaber Seven.

“The enhancements are good for the industry overall, because they serveto give the user a broader view of the information they’re looking forand allow the user to more easily filter that information,” Anderson told TechNewsWorld. “However,the question remains: Will users adopt these new services, giventhey’re already trained to search within their searches until theyfind the correct information?”

Semantics will remain a vital key to search enhancements. Searchengine developers also need to understand the user’s question. This iswhere semantics really come into play, Anderson pointed out. Saber Seven isdeveloping a solution that brings the answers to the user and refinesthe process with all these techniques integrated into the experience.

Control Factors

Search engine users typically have two focuses: They either discover the topic or thespecific data. Google’s changes make it easier for users to filterthrough the search results to truly find what they are looking forfrom a type-of-data standpoint. However, users still need to use accurate search terms,cautioned Anderson.

“Google is well-known as an innovator and a leader in keyword search,and giving users more control over how to view and filter informationwill certainly create a more engaging experience,” he said. “However, across theindustry, how people consume information from a search is changing,and Google’s changes are a natural reflection of this.”

It remains to be seen whether these changes will improve the quality ofthe information and reduce the time a user spends on search. Withoutsemantics and human understanding, noted Anderson, the results are not yet truly valuable.

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