Google Lets Two More Ideas Out of the Lab

SAN FRANCISCO – Google today unveiled two new search functions, one for images and one for news, that are designed to make it easier to drill down and find exactly what the user is looking for.

Google Similar Images and Google News Timeline both build on what Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) does best, and that is search. But in both cases, the company admitted that when users were trying to find something, it was easy to get overloaded or for context to be lost.

Both products are fairly early in their release cycles but R.J. Pittman, director of product management at Google Labs, wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’re trying to close the gap between when a new idea is hatched and when we can get it in the hands of customers for feedback,” he told a gathering of journalists in Google’s downtown San Francisco office.

Most companies shy away from putting a product in the hands of customers too soon, but not Google, which wants to release “early and often,” as Pittman put it.

That meant changing how Google Labs works. It had gone unchanged since its introduction in 2002, but recently was changed entirely. They use their own technology now, building all products on AppEngine. There’s also more interaction between Google engineers working on the project and people testing it. They have blogs and chat with users.

The first item for demonstration was Similar Images, an upgrade to its Images function that adds context. Searching for “Paris” can yield anything from the city to the fame-seeker. Similar Image lets the user pick an image of the city, and then drill down.

Want more pictures of the Louvre? Select it and more pictures of the famous art gallery. Want just pictures of I.M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid? Select that picture and up comes many more.

“This lets people refine the results they get from a single image,” said Radhika Malpani, director of engineering at Google. “They know what they are looking for but don’t know how to describe it. This allows users to say I like that image, show me more like it.”

The drill down is achieved through some metadata but mostly image analysis. Malpani estimates Google has hundreds of millions of images in its database. “Our goal is to cover all the public images in the world. So all of the above is in the index,” she said.

Next up was News Timeline from engineer Andy Hertzfeld, one of the original developers of the Macintosh software. He came up with a new way to organize the vast amount of news that Google gathers, both through newsfeeds and also by scanning in old publications.

News Timeline has the same draggable interface as Google Maps and Google Earth but with a column-based view by year, month or date. It can show all news information, news from one particular source, or on one particular topic.

Want to track the career of President Obama? Search Timeline under his name, and then organize by year, month or day. Or you can select a publication, such as Time magazine, and look at all of its covers from a certain year or month.

So far, Google has no plans to monetize it yet. “We just want to get a user base that loves it and then work on it. Haven’t thought about [monetizing it] at all,” said Pittman.

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