By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 11:56 am
The two tweaks to Google Web search that the Office Google Blog announced this morning aren’t game-changers. Actually, you might not even notice ‘em unless you’re looking. But they’re both worthwhile refinements that should make some searches go faster.
Tweak #1 is the more interesting of the two: Google’s related searches feature–which suggests queries related to the one you entered–now has a deeper semantic understanding of some concepts, and can therefore suggest additional searches that go beyond slight variations in wording.
Here are a couple of examples:
It’s not magic–in both of the examples above, the suggestions feel a bit random, and other queries I performed didn’t seem to benefit from the tweak at all. But it makes related searches more valuable–and it whets my appetite for the day when Google and other search engines are really smart about figuring out your queries. (What if a search for “famous scientists” could give you a neatly-organized grid with queries for dozens of distinguished scientific folk?)
As Google’s blog post points out, related searches appear at the bottom of search results (when they appear at all) and sometimes, but not always, at the top as well. Google is clearly a big believer in weaving together results in different ways depending on the query, and while the logic behind some of its decisions is obvious–like putting maps at the top of searches with a strong geographic angle–I’m still not sure if I understand the reasoning behind the inconsistent position of the related searches.
Tweak #2 is really subtle: When you enter long, wordy search queries, the snippets of text that show up in Google’s results are now longer in some cases, to provide more information and show more of the words you searched for in context. Such as in this example:
It’s good to see Google continuing to polish up its most important service–even minor improvements to Web search will probably make more people more productive and happy than any number of Google Livelies, Mail Goggles, and pseudo-Undo features ever could. (I’m reminded of the famous story about Steve Jobs arguing that shaving ten seconds off the original Mac’s boot time, times fifty million users, was the equivalent of saving a dozen lives.)
And while I don’t think anyone would ever accuse Google of resting on its laurels, having those laurels does give it the luxury of worrying about small things as well as big ones. Other search engines, from Microsoft’s Live Search to Ask.com to upstarts like Cuil, will only steal meaningful numbers of Google dans if they offer obvious advantages over Google–ideally in the form of breakthrough features and great leaps forward that are very, very hard to come by. Only Google doesn’t have to worry about Google: If it just makes all the users it’s already got a bit happier, it’ll do just fine. And small steps like the ones it took today should help.