Google Adds Answers, Augments Maps

UPDATED: Google instituted a new means of fact-finding on Thursday: Google Q&A.

The new service lets users ask questions using natural language. Results come from a sort of parallel universe within Google.

“We made a pass over the Web, pulled out a database for facts, and use that to provide a separate set of results,” Peter Norvig, Google’s director of search, said.

While some early natural language search tools employed human editors to determine possible questions and answers, Google took its standard approach. “It’s more automated and algorithmic, rather than human-generated,” Norvig said.

Google Q&A has strengths and weaknesses, Norvig admitted. “It works for things where there’s some kind of a fact or attribute of an object,” he said. “If you’re looking for one fact this is place to go for it.” Google suggested that celebrities, countries of the world, the planets, the elements, electronics and movies were well-suited for the Q&A feature.

For example, asking, “What is the population of India?” returns rock-solid results in the form of links to Web sites that answer the question.

On the other hand, the top result for the question, “What is the capital of France?” was “Investment Capital and Banking in France.”

Norvig said using a simple question format can make it easier for searchers to identify what they’re looking for, rather than having to figure out the proper key words. But the queries don’t have to be full sentences. The system identifies both query words, such as “who” or “what,” and fact-type terms such as capital, director, population. “To find out who directed “Finding Nemo,” you don’t have to put in the ‘who is,'” he explained.

Another new Google feature follows the integration of Keyhole’s digital mapping technology with Google Maps and Google Local. It allows Google Maps users to view maps and directions through Keyhole’s satellite and aerial high-resolution digital photos. the Keyhole maps enable users to zoom in and out, and navigate the satellite and aerial high-resolution digital maps dynamically in any direction.

Google acquired Keyhole Technologies in October. Google will continue to offer the paid Keyhole 2 LT and PRO software products that provide interactive access to a streaming 3D global database of imagery and mapping information.

Google is in a three-way feature race with competitors Yahoo and MSN. According to the latest figures from Nielsen//NetRatings, in January, Google handled 47.1 percent of searches; Yahoo took care of 21.2 percent, and MSN delivered on 12.8 percent of all searches.

Also on Thursday, Yahoo said it would provide hardware and resources to support Wikipedia, a community-based encyclopedia written and edited by volunteers. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales called the support the most significant to date from a corporate sponsor. Yahoo also will display shortcuts to Wikipedia content on search results pages, beginning in the next several weeks. Wikipedia results will be available to searchers in the U.S. and some European, Asian and Latin American properties.

Yahoo also extended the use of its free anti-spyware tool to users of the Firefox open source browser who work on Windows, releasing a toolbar sans Yahoo Anti-Spy for Firefox users on the Macintosh and Linux operating systems.

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