RealTime IT News

Google Reaches For 'Universal Search'

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- Universal search, the idea that a search engine will be sophisticated enough to draw on all the different media types and information sources to present individual users with the best results, is a tough nut to crack. But Google has taken the "critical first steps" toward achieving that goal.

At an event here at the company's Googleplex headquarters, Google  announced the rollout of its universal search and previewed technology it plans to release in the coming months.

The most obvious change is the addition of dynamically generated, horizontal navigation links above search results. Examples of links include Web, Images, Video and Books.

Google can now significantly enhance results where it has rights to copyrighted or access to public domain content.

For example, a search for Nosferatu, the 1922 classic horror movie, results in a typical link to the Internet Movie Database as the top result. But the third result includes a thumbnail that when clicked lets you view the actual full-length movie without leaving the search results page.

Also, if you instead clicked on the "Video" navigation link you'd get a long list of different videos of the movie, all viewable from within the page.

Google said it will also show results from a handful of other video search sites, including MetaCafe (and of course YouTube which it owns), though you would have to click through to those third party sites to see the video.

Book results are also now integrated into search results. "Google Books is one our most underappreciated assets," said Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience. Google has a database of over a million book titles available for viewing.

Dan Clancy, who manages the engineering team behind Google Books, said book content has a more authoritative feel. "We're still very conservative about rolling out the content, but this is a significant development," Clancy told internetnews.com.

A search for the term "python" illustrates another feature of the new navigation links. Google categorizes the results, providing navigation links to Blogs, Books, Groups and Code. In the last case, clicking on Code will take you to links of code done in the Python programming language.

Google also introduced changes to horizontal navigation links that appear at the top of Google pages, including search, iGoogle (formerly Personalized Homepage) and Gmail.

The navigation contains a new dropdown menu, which allows quick access to such items as Google Calendar, Groups, Reader and Finance.

Google also announced a new Google Experimental site where users can try out services still in development. One of the first is search that gives results in a timeline and maps formats.

Searching on the term "nanotechnology," for example, presents a timeline you can click on to get more information on various breakthroughs in the nanotech field.

A Map View search for "BioInformatics conferences" highlights various locations on a map of the world where there is a conference planned.

Other changes in the works at Google might not be obvious to users and probably won't merit a formal announcement. Google officials said they routinely make changes to enhance the user experience. Ironically, one measure of the effectiveness of those changes is when they go unnoticed. "A lot of what we do is in the background to make search better," said Udi Manber, Google's vice president of engineering.

Google, and other search engines, already automatically correct or account for spelling errors. For example, if you type in Born Borg, most search engines will give you a top result related to the famous Swedish tennis player (whose name is correctly spelled, Bjorn Borg).

But now Google is also looking to autocorrect, or at least make an educated guess as to the intent behind a query. So for example, Google would guess someone entering the query for "Unchanged lyrics Van Halen" is really looking for "Lyrics to Unchained by Van Halen."

The user won't know Google is modifying the query, Manber told internetnews.com. The idea is that Google wants to keep things simple for the user and have the search engine figure out what the user wants.

Although Google did not make any announcements related to its ad services, Manber said it hoped to bring some of the same richness of different media types to the ad area. "For us, ads are answers too."