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Change the way you search

Seeking smarts – changes in the way you search

Change the way you search
05 June 2012

Many of us possibly can’t remember much about a pre-Google online world.

The search giant hoovers up more than 90% of the internet searches we make in the UK, and while Google can sometimes be the object of online ire, any changes or improvements to the user experience are likely to affect many millions of people around the world.

Thus when the company announces that search results will be presented in a ‘more human’ way, this is a talking point for us all. So what are the latest changes to Google all about?

Context is king

Designed to give quicker and more accurate access to what we are looking for in any given search query, the new feature – billed as the Knowledge Graph – aims to give a greater context to results. We all know the problem: as Google basically tries to match up keywords in web pages with those inputted by the user in their search queries, the results served up can be a mixed bag which you then have to sift through to find what you want. This is one thing if you are online devoting a bit of time to saving money – such as looking to compare broadband deals – but it can leave you feeling a bit empty if you are after a quick answer to a question.

Announcing the change, which is initially only available in the US, Google itself acknowledged and illustrated the problem on its company blog by comparing the potential confusion you can get into with the two words ‘Taj Mahal’. Pointing out that, while you are only going to be interested in one option, you are nevertheless going to be inundated with information about the famous monument, a blues musician, a casino, or even the nearest Indian restaurant, Google’s Amit Singhal said that the company’s change would focus on “things, not strings”.

The Knowledge Graph feature allows you to narrow down what you are searching for – and therefore eliminating the potential ambiguity in your search query – in a box which appears in the top right-hand corner of the page. This sees results grouped in terms of their context for the first time, due to the more in-depth understanding that the search engine is making about the relationships between topics, and will also include a greater emphasis on graphical elements.

While one of the reasons for the Knowledge Graph is to encourage discovery, one of the upshots of this is that many will get the information they need right there in the search results – without leaving Google itself and heading off into a web page.

Changing face of knowledge

According to executives at Google, the company is “in the early phases of moving from being an information engine to becoming a knowledge engine.” The move is also said to reflect a growing trend among the major search engines to move away from simple lists of text – and some commenters have noted the recent appearance of Bing’s ‘Snapshot’ feature, which has also attempted to go beyond the familiar list approach to incorporate social results in search.

Key to the Google endeavour is the idea that the search engine itself has to become more ‘intelligent’ – learning to interpret information, drawing on numerous sources and returning a balanced answer. This is something that Wolfram Alpha has been doing for several years now, billing itself as a ‘knowledge engine’, as opposed to a ‘search engine’: meaning it is more structured, both in the inputs and the outputs, and in the rigour of the sources it looks at to produce its answers.

Producing ‘reports’ as opposed to the familiar lists of results, Wolfram Alpha actively takes your query, selects a number of verified sources, then crunches the numbers to ‘compute’ – rather than just return – an answer. The beauty of this approach is that it contextualises the information, rather than leaving the user to sift through and make their own deductions. And with it launching a new subscriber-only ‘pro’ service earlier this year, offering greater depth to users, this approach is clearly one that is expected to be a genuine alternative to the traditional search options.