WSJ Says Big Google Search Changes Coming? Reality Check Time!

google-g-logo-96x100The Wall Street Journal is out with a story saying that Google is about to make one of the biggest changes in its history of offering web search, providing more direct answers and gaining “semantic” smarts to understand more about what words mean. I’m scratching my head, since Google already does this. Methinks Google’s PR has exploded in ways it didn’t expect.

Beyond Blue Links!

From the story, we learn things such as:

Over the next few months, Google’s search engine will begin spitting out more than a list of blue Web links. It will also present more facts and direct answers to queries at the top of the search-results page.

and:

The company is aiming to provide more relevant results by incorporating technology called “semantic search,” which refers to the process of understanding the actual meaning of words.

and:

Amit Singhal, a top Google search executive, said in a recent interview that the search engine will better match search queries with a database containing hundreds of millions of “entities”—people, places and things—which the company has quietly amassed in the past two years. Semantic search can help associate different words with one another, such as a company (Google) with its founders ( Larry Page and Sergey Brin).

Be sure to read the full article. I don’t want to be doing too many extended quotes out of it. But having read it several times myself, I keep trying to understand what’s new here.

Google’s Existing Semantic Search & Direct Answers

Google’s arguably been doing semantic search since 2003, when it began searching for synonyms of the words actually entered. It has increased its understanding of the meaning of words over the years and even did a detailed blog post about this in 2010. Here’s another from 2009:

Starting today, we’re deploying a new technology that can better understand associations and concepts related to your search, and one of its first applications lets us offer you even more useful related searches (the terms found at the bottom, and sometimes at the top, of the search results page).

For example, if you search for [principles of physics], our algorithms understand that “angular momentum,” “special relativity,” “big bang” and “quantum mechanic” are related terms that could help you find what you need.

As for “spitting out” those “facts and direct answers” that the WSJ story talks about, Google’s been doing that for so long that it’s hard for me to even know exactly when it all began.

Meet The Google OneBox, Plus Box, Direct Answers & The 10-Pack from 2009 covers how direct answers were provided in response to a variety of searches, and many of these answers were already integrated into Google for years before that was written.

UPS & FedEx tracking reports, along with flight status updates, a built-in calculator and more. Had it in 2004. Movie information and stock charts? 2005. Music and weather? 2006. Sports scores? 2009.

Here’s Google blogging about “Just the facts, fast” in 2005:

Have you ever needed a piece of info right now? Today we’re excited to introduce Google Q&A.

We’ve pulled together facts from all over the Web to help give you the fastest possible access to the quick bits of information you need every day; just type a query into the search box, and you’ll get back the answer at the top of your search results. Q&A knows about a lot of areas: celebrities, countries of the world, the planets, the elements, electronics, movies, and anything else we’ve thought of so far (including enabling you to get answers on your mobile device).

Try it out, and keep checking back. This is only the beginning.

Google Squared Still Lives

How about extracting facts from pages, to figure out things like the inventor of the telephone or when a movie release will happen. Google touted doing all this using its Google Squared technology in 2010. See here on the Google blog and our own stories:

By the way, Google even was offering facts like the sexual orientation of celebrities, though this was dropped last year.

Honestly, it sounds like Google is just going to ramp up showing results that come from its Google Squared technology, as well as what’s been built since its FreebaseMetaweb acquistion. The WSJ mentions the latter, but not Google Squared:

But the newest change is expected to go much further, coming as a result of Google’s acquisition in 2010 start-up Metaweb Technologies, which had an index of 12 million entities, such as movies, books, companies and celebrities….

Mr. Singhal said Google and the Metaweb team, which then numbered around 50 software engineers, have since expanded the size of the index to more than 200 million entities, partly by developing “extraction algorithms,” or mathematical formulas that can organize data scattered across the Web.

It also approached organizations and government agencies to obtain access to databases, including the CIA World Factbook, which houses up-to-date encyclopedic information about countries worldwide.

Google Squared was closed as a stand-alone service last year, but the technology has remained a part of Google search. These articles explain more about it:

Why If There’s PR Smoke, There Might Be No Fire

If all this isn’t really new, why’s it getting played up so big with the Wall Street Journal, as well as Mashable last month? Mashable even quoted Google talking about its “knowledge graph” for the first time that I’ve seen.

My take is that Google’s pushing these technologies for some good PR, and they are in turn being blown up out of proportion to what will really happen.

Google’s been under intense pressure in some quarters since rolling out Search Plus Your World, pressure that its results aren’t as good as in the past. It’s helpful to counter that type of bad PR with interviews talking up forward-looking technologies. Heck, it’s right out of Bing’s playbook.

Remember Bing & Powerset?

If you believed all the forward-looking stuff that Bing has pushed, you’d have expected Google to have been a whimpering child of a search engine cowering in the corner, at this point.

Why remember Powerset, with all that amazing semantic technology that Bing later acquired? Here, read up on it:

Sure, Powerset is part of Bing. Did you notice it making Bing significantly better than Google? Has Bing drawn tons more people over to it from Google for having that technology?

Nope. But that doesn’t stop Bing from talking it up, though it seems to have done less of that lately. Powerset is good technology to have. It might lead to important future improvements. But no instant revolution is about to pour forth from it, nor has it.

Remember Bing & Wolfram Alpha?

Heck, remember when Wolfram Alpha partnered up with Bing? This was after Wolfram Alpha’s factually-based search engine failed to wipe Google off the map, as some assumed it would. Here are some reminders of that:

For all that the direct answers were supposed to be important, I can’t even get Bing to trigger some of the examples it touted when linking up with Wolfram Alpha.

Make no mistake. Wolfram Alpha is a cool, useful search engine. In fact, I had a long, excellent conversation with Stephen Wolfram on Monday while at the SXSW conference about how things are going and some interesting things to come. Stay tuned.

But it’s important to distinguish between what’s put out as PR versus what’s likely to happen in reality. Bing’s done a lot of big talk, and when that big talk has done nothing to stall Google’s market share, it still keeps talking big. This past piece from me explains more about that:

Why’s Google Talking Big?

Google’s doing some big talk of its own now, which as I said, is probably being interpreted as even bigger than it really is. But why this specific talk about direct answers and understanding?

For one, Google shot itself in the foot last year. At the D Conference, WSJ tech columnist Walt Mossberg pointed out to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt that Google didn’t do as good as job as Bing in providing direct answers. And Schmidt agreed! From my coverage then:

Mossberg said that Bing seems to have more direct answers in some cases.

“There’s that in some narrow cases,” Schmidt said.

There you go — one of the top three execs at Google admitting that Bing beats Google, even if it’s in a narrow case. I’m sure there have been some statements like that before, but they’re few and far between.

It was crazy. Mossberg wasn’t right. What the hell is “some” cases supposed to mean. In “some” other cases, Google has more. But overall, no one has any idea who provides more direct answers, much less meaningful direct answers. No one. Mossberg didn’t inventory this himself. There’s no third-party survey out there. It’s not like there’s some “direct answers app store” listing answers that you can count.

That was just Mossberg, in my view, saying what he believed in his gut. It was Schmidt, to me, kind of cowering against Mossberg. He is, after all, Walt Mossberg. You don’t just tell him he’s wrong. Even if he is.

As a result, Google positioned itself as being weak to the leading tech journalist on the planet. How do you pull yourself out of that?

The Siri Problem

I know! Maybe you start talking about all those direct answers you’re going to do? Make sure you do that fairly quickly, because you’ve got another problem brewing.

While your latest Android 4 mobile operating system has arguably made it harder for people to search by voice — and while most Android phones still haven’t been upgraded to it — those iPhone 4S phones all equipped with Siri sold like hotcakes.

What’s Siri doing? Sending some of the searches people do not to you (as you’d think that deal you have with Apple would require) but instead over to Yelp and Wolfram Alpha.

You know, like 25 percent of the voice searches people are doing with Siri. That’s a lot of searches.

The press noticed that. They also noticed when Apple distanced itself from Google Maps in the latest version of iOS. You even had a financial analyst trying to figure if the end of a Google-Apple deal would harm Google’s bottom line. That got press attention, too.

If you’re Google looking at all this, it becomes even more important to start talking about how you have this Wolfram Alpha-like fact engine that you’re churning up. Heck, you even rolled out a Wolfram Alpha-like graphical math calculator last year.

What To Expect

To sum up, Google’s already said several times over the past year or so that it would be providing more and more direct answers. It sounds like that’s the biggest thing that’s likely to be released in the coming months.

Those direct answers potentially take traffic away from a relatively small set of sites that try to serve up direct answers, such as the height of Mount McKinley. That’s sad for those sites, but it’s good for the searcher. And it shouldn’t impact the much larger set of sites out there with broader information.

Indeed, you can already see this now:

You can see the direct answer at the top. The three arrows from that area show how some of the sources also get surfaced as regular results. Below that, the fourth arrow highlights how another site appears.

Having the direct answer might prevent some searchers from clicking through to any of these. But with the answer already in some of the page descriptions, they probably weren’t clicking much already.

There have also been reports that Google’s working on a better version of Google Voice Actions, a version that’s more assistant-like, in the way Siri is. It might even get called Majel. That sounds reasonable, especially given how long various Googlers have talked about wanting to have a Star Trek-like computer (as voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry).

But in the end, for all that the search engines have talked for years about going beyond “10 blue links,” I’d be surprised if the changes the WSJ story today talks about dramatically alter what we see now on Google. More answers, sure. But those 10 blue links will still likely remain the core of what’s shown.

For Google’s part, when I emailed for any comment, it replied with: ”We have nothing specific to announce at this time.”

I’ll be following up to see if I can pry anything more on-the-record about this.

Postscript: Google’s Amit Singhal, who heads Google’s search efforts and who was cited in the WSJ story, has posted to Google+ to say:

Some recent news coverage about Google has sparked interest in where we are and where we’re headed in search.

Let me just say that every day, we’re improving our ability to give you the best answers to your questions as quickly as possible. In doing so, we convert raw data into knowledge for millions of users around the world. But our ability to deliver this experience is a function of our understanding your question and also truly understanding all the data that’s out there. And right now, our understanding is pretty darn limited. Ask us for “the 10 deepest lakes in the U.S,” and we’ll give you decent results based on those keywords, but not necessarily because we understand what depth is or what a lake is.

In 2010, we acquired Freebase, an open-source knowledge graph, and in the time since we’ve grown it from 12 million interconnected entities and attributes to over 200 million. Our vision for this knowledge graph is as a tool to aid the creation of more knowledge — an endless cycle of creativity and insight.

But as I explained in an interview last month [ED note: the Mashable interview I mentioned above], our initial steps towards this virtuous cycle are indeed baby steps. So stay tuned for updates on what will continue to be a long road ahead.

The last part is key in all this: “the long road ahead.” I think that underscores the point of what I’ve written, that you’re unlikely to see a massive change to how Google search looks and operates in the near term.

Related Articles

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile | Features: Analysis | Google: Squared | Google: Voice Search | Google: Web Search | Microsoft: Bing | Microsoft: Photosynth | Search Engines: Powerset | Search Features: Shortcuts | Top News | Wolfram Alpha

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://durak.org/sean/ sean dreilinger

    WSJ posted a brief follow-up a few hours later, also from Amir Efrati, with commentary from the cofounder of Metaweb: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2012/03/14/what-googles-search-changes-might-mean-for-you/

  • davep

    It isn’t often I disagree with an article I read on SEL – but this time I suspect you are giving Google too much slack.

    Google continues to take away from (sm)all publishers, but it also continues to take from them by harvesting the information they have produced. Google continues to treat publisher’s content as their own to do with as they wish (think Yelp and others reviews on Places – used to prop the product for up for 2 years while it got a foothold then dumped).

    The more that Google tries to give “direct answers” the less people discover on the internet – sure people may go to a website to find out the height of a mountain but they may then find other great content on that site. Perhaps related information on the mountain, or perhaps they’ll just find that the site as a whole useful. Without visiting the other sites they won’t – and that means not only do the publishers loose out, but the users do too.

    Of course, Google will argue that users are free to click through if they want – but you can be sure that the SERPs will be structured in a way that makes it a whole lot easier for users to stay on Google properties (I can already imagine the enthusiastic “Hangout and discuss ‘the height of mount mckinley’ on Google+ links) or click the ads.

    Google’s mission to shrink the internet continues.

  • O.L.

    Where on earth did you get that google is “talking big” from, in that article? The only quote they had was Amit Singal mentioning that they’re building a knowledge base, which itself was probably taken totally out of context and they they managed to blow up into a whole article. Yet some how you’ve found some pr campaign and like wsj have blown in out of proportion with no basis or source!?

  • joex2

    Google copies Microsoft again.

  • http://ebiquity.umbc.edu/person/html/Varish/Mulwad/ Varish

    While I really like the new things Google and Bing are trying out (especially, the semantics & entities part, given that my PhD research revolves around that !), but I was wondering how much % of queries lead to direct answers ? Not many, I guess ? And if the % is less, do Google/Bing really care for them ?

  • Pat

    maybe it’s some weird extension of the usual lag between techie awareness and gen pop awareness… when i saw it this morning, obviously recycled, i wondered if it was some sort of pay wall or seo testing by news orgs (cuz it aint news, but they are putting it out). next cup of coffee should dampen my morning conspiratoriality.

  • http://www.topherkohan.com Topher Kohan

    A well written article as usual Danny.

    That said, I have to disagree with you on one point. You say that the inclusion of more direct answers could take away from smaller sites, but should have little impact on larger sites. To me, this feels like a short-sighted statement at best.

    I would say that larger sites are just as impacted by the inclusion of the “OneBox” direct answer. It is nothing short of Google taking money away from sites.

    I might go as far as to say they’re stealing from the sites. I am all about Google getting info from sites for inclusion in the SERPS. I believe that falls under “fair use.” But to cull info and then give it away in a manner that keeps the user from needing to go to the site is a different thing in my mind altogether.

    If the user is looking for a sports score or an election result — and they find that info on a Google page – it’s the same as Google taking money away from the source and putting it into their own pocket.

    I have heard Google say, “We have data that shows the users want this and the sites benefit from it.” B.S.!

    Ask NFL.com, NASCAR.com, MLB.com or any big news site on a primary night how they feel about people not having to come to their site to find out who won and who lost.

    This is, in my mind, Google once again flexing it power over publishers and taking from them for its own financial gain.

  • http://alunhill.com Alun Hill

    The Uk’s Daily Mail has copied the article’s concepts and made it worse!

    “Google search will soon do more than simply hunt down words – instead, it will ‘answer questions’ in a drastic makeover for the search engine.
    Within months, Google searches will no longer throw up a simple list of blue links – a huge change for the page that forms the world’s ‘doorway’ to the web.
    Instead, the top of the Results page will be dotted with information that ‘answers questions’ posed in Search.
    The move echoes what Microsoft has done with its Bing search engine”.

    Some of the comments there are funnier, though!

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2115273/Google-Semantic-search-answer-questions-shift-makes-like-Bing.html#ixzz1pCGCKXAC

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2115273/Google-Semantic-search-answer-questions-shift-makes-like-Bing.html

    Sigh!

  • http://webmd.com roseberry

    Agree completely with Topher here. If google had reporters, editors, etc. that were creating the answers that would be on thing, but how they do it currently is taking the work of others, extracting it and developing a type of content strategy around it (really these one-boxes and answer boxes are just a content product – not a search product). Imagine if a site like ehow or any other generalist site had a question and answer engine that worked like this. They’d get skewered. Just because web publishers allow crawling for their pages to be included in an index, doesn’t mean they consent to Google extracting data and content to use to enhance it’s own product development where that content is used outside of the index of the page it came from.

  • http://reinvent.com Rob Woods

    Topher, to be fair I think what Danny said was that single answers would take traffic away from a relatively “small set of sites” rather than a “set of small sites”. Large sites could well be included in the small set of sites losing traffic from expanded one box type answers.

    Having said that I firmly believe that search IS moving inexorably away from the 10 blue text links. Google may not be moving as quickly in that direction as some as they haven’t figured out how to monetize ads as well in environments other than the traditional SERPs. I believe that single authoritative answers, likely on mobile devices or devices integrated into whole systems which control a given environment (like the Star Trek computer) are going to become much more prevalent in the way people search in the future. As a user if I want to find the solution to a query with a single answer, all I want is that single answer (or address, phone number, sports score, weather forecast, etc). If Google wants to continue to be dominant in search they HAVE to build better tech on both the voice recognition and single answer fronts. If they don’t someone will.

    It’s certainly going to change the future for the sources of that data and Google taking data from those sources without proper attribution would not be right, but what if they do an end run around the content producers? They have their own location data, they could get sports scores directly from the major leagues, weather info from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, factual information direct from authoritative sources or build their own database of answers, etc. It’s certainly a threat to a wide range of content producers and I don’t think it’s happening tomorrow but if publishers don’t start preparing for the very real probability that this is the way search could go they are going to wake up one day with a big hit to their traffic.

  • http://searchoftheday.com david yehaskel

    Maybe Google is getting back at WSJ for its Google-is-a-slut swipe. “Leak” the “new features” to a WSJ reporter who will run with it and presto! Instant irony with a karmic twist – had the reporter bothered to execute the barest minimum of a couple Google searches, he would have quickly seen through it and never “reported” it.

  • http://jadedtlc.blogspot.com JT

    I agree with Topher. Google already one-boxes video game release dates which are the bread and butter of high traffic for video game sites. They take our information and then the user has no reason to click through to our sites which may have more information. The user is robbed of seeing if it was a console only or pc game release date.

    So no, Google, you cannot be a publisher and a promoter of websites at the same time. And it’s time they chose one side and paid for our content.

  • http://blog.webpro.in Bharati

    I think all these changes mentioned in the WSJ (if true) are drawing a clear, distinct line between organic search campaigns and paid campaigns. All of these developments will make SEOs and website owners think beyond rankings and keywords, because the true meaning of SEO is to ensure quality search engine presence on maximum search options by focusing on overall quality web presence — enhancing the quality aspects of the website and reaching out to netizens via various modes of social media.

    Finally the search industry has matured and is qualitatively marching ahead. But, this has not happened overnight the search engines (Google And Bing) have been constantly working to improve the quality and display of search results by giving more and more search options over a period of time. The study of the user behavior being at the base of all the decisions as the user behavior is also constantly evolving over the years.

    If at all Google in the near future starts rolling out semantic search the relevance to the logic of the intent, the keyword mapping in the query and the freshness of the content will all matter collectively. The search engines have been working on semantic search since the advent of web 2.0

    My views related to this topic in detail on :

    http://blog.webpro.in/2012/03/my-views-on-wsj-post-google-gives.html

  • mike2000

    Maybe Google’s direct answers will be marked as duplicate content…

  • http://twitter.com/SeoLair George Fischer

    Google sending tons of referral traffic to WikiPedia.  I believe these changes are an attempt to keep those visitors on Google.com to find the information as opposed to visiting WikiPedia.  Google does this with Air Travel and other key verticals.  The more time users spend on Google.com as opposed to other sites, the more likely they are to click on PPC ads :)

  • http://twitter.com/PerthPlanner Avant Financial

    Bing does not compare to Google. In Australia Bing does not have its own registry of businesses for their maps section. Instead they just use the information from the local yellow pages – pathetic. Most importantly though is that the search results are not of the same standard as Google.

  • http://twitter.com/REALITY_SUCKS REALITY SUCKS

     Expand WORSE THAN THAT IS… DOES GOOGLE THINK THE AVERAGE USER IS SO STUPID…. WE WONT NOTICE THEY CUT THE ACTUAL  AMOUNT OF DATA & INFORMATION SEARCHABLE, DOWN TO 1%???? THEY HAVE CENSORED HUGE AMOUNTS OF DATA OFF THE SEARCH ENGINE..CUT IT TO THE BONE!!!   LEAVING US WITH THE CRUMBS!!! THEY HAVE MOUNTAINS OF DATA…BUT, NOW, WE DONT HAVE ACCESS TO ANYTHING BUT CORPORATE CRAP ADS AND, POLITICALLY CORRECT, BIAS INFORMATION!!!! THE WORLD OF INFORMATION, IS LOCKED BEHIND THE GOOG-CENSORSHIP!!! LESS IS MORE ACCORDING TO SCHMIDT??? B.S. **LESS IS A COVERT CENSORSHIP… TO KEEP US, IN THE INFORMATION-DARK!!! NOW WE KNOW WHAT THEY WERE UP TO.  ***NO DATA….*** FEW SEARCH RESULTS!!  ****SELECTIVE COVERT DATA- CENSORSHIP!!!!

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