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Google Gives Healthy Update of Search Efforts

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – When your self-described mission is to organize all the world's information, well, the job never gets less challenging. Google confirmed that today at its "Factory Tour" event for the media, where it showed off the latest research in various search-related fields and announced the official debut of Google health.

While some of the new search features discussed today, have dribbled out unofficially the past few months, Google Health was officially announced for public access today.

The goal, which is a long way from being widely realized, is to make consumer health records more portable and accessible regardless of whether you've changed doctors, hospitals or insurance plans.

Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has its own initiative called Microsoft HealthVault.

"We're very excited and we're just getting started," said Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). Mayer noted the challenges of dealing with myriad security and privacy concerns and making different record formats accessible.

She said helping consumers with health records was a natural extension for Google, as she said the majority of Internet users in need of health information start with a search query and, of course, Google has the lion's share of the search market.

A smattering of high profile health providers and related organizations including the Cleveland Clinic, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Longs Drug Stores, Walgreens Pharmacy, Rx America and Quest Diagnostics, were on hand at today's event to announce support for Google Health.

Google said it's actively seeking the participation of others. Google Health users can import their medical records from participating organizations, which traditionally have kept them under close seal.

Roni Zeiger, a medical doctor and product manager for Google Health, said privacy has been a top concern in the design and ongoing development of the service. "The user decides at any time who has access to their information," he said. "We don't sell the information and we won't share it unless asked to (by the user)."

He also said anyone's personal medical information in Google Health will not show up in any searches by outside parties.

"Pharmacists can't perform a drug interaction test if you don't know what drugs a person is taking," said Casey Kozlowski, Walgreen's manager for healthcare automation. "With Google Health, I think we're getting a more engaged patient taking care of their health."

As for monetization of the site, Google said it has no immediate plans to include ads. There will be a Google search box on the site.

It's all about image(s)

Image search was also a big topic of discussion and Google detailed the challenges it and other search competitors face from smaller players to the likes of the Microsoft and Yahoo.

R.J. Pittman, product manager for Google's search properties, said image search is one of the fastest growing services the company offers. "There are over 300 million digital photos created each day," said Pittman. "Or about 100 billion added to cyberspace every year."

Google plans to continue to battle this blitz of images, making image search a standard component of its universal search feature. "We'll get to a trillion images online," said Pittman. "I'd like to see us be the search index with over a trillion images to choose from." He also said demand for image results in search "has grown a couple of orders of magnitude" the past two years.

The challenge goes well beyond simply cataloguing images. There are images within images to sort out and the vagaries of search queries. Google has added an Advanced Image Search option to its basic image search where you can narrow your search criteria further by selecting only images related to an exact phrase, or only related to news content or faces.

And then there is the question of what pays for all this. Pittman said Google's efforts to link relevant ads to image searches hasn't always been successful. "We're not afraid to go back to the drawing board," he said.

The latest try is today's launch of a new suite of "image-related experiments" designed to place relevant display ads next to image results. So for example, a recipe search might have food-related ads. "We're looking for a true user experience alignment," said Pittman.

Another tough nut, local search.

Google also said it's making a push to provide more local content in search results. A big part of this is dependent on users signing up for the iGoogle personalized home page.

Once logged into iGoogle, the search engine recognizes your geographic location by zip code and will tailor results accordingly – pizza locations in downtown Cleveland would pop up first in results for a search on "pizza" for someone living there, for example.

"Local search is a geographic lens to any place," said Carter Maslan, director of product management. He also noted local search has an extremely long tail; that is, there are a lot of obscure locations and details that are not easily found. Examples include soccer and other playing fields that don't necessarily have a street address.

Google has introduced a feature that lets users edit location results. Businesses can "claim" their online details and keep them read-only by an online verification process. "Conceptually, it's like a wiki," Maslan told InternetNews.com.

Google quietly launched the service a few months ago, but has had broad participation. At Google's "recentedits" site, you can see modifications made to maps updated every eight seconds.

That constant updating is just one example of the breakneck speed at which new search capabilities are cropping up.