New Google Search Features: We're Not Dead Yet; Not Even Resting
Posted by: Rob Hof on May 12, 2009
Amid a flurry of Internet search developments by other companies recently, Google today sought to demonstrate that it’s not ceding any leadership in the Internet’s most valuable territory. At the company’s Searchology event at its Mountain View headquarters, Google announced several new and upcoming features that indicate neither Twitter nor WolframAlpha nor Microsoft is easily going to vault past Google. The overall goal, according to Udi Manber, Google’s vice president of engineering for core search, is for Google search to understand people and what they mean.
Since blog software problems prevented me from liveblogging the event, I tweeted the basics on my Twitter stream this morning, and others have covered the details. So I’ll just summarize the announcements here:
* Search Options allows you to open up a pane on the left side of the screen that lets you narrow results by time, including the past 24 hours (hello, Twitter), and "genre," starting with videos, forums, and reviews but growing to other categories later. You can also look at different views of the results, including one called "Wonder Wheel" that offers related results in a circle around the original query. These features are being rolled out gradually today.
* Google Squared combs through the Web (a limited number of sites for now, the whole Web over time) to create a table of information, not just Web links. (Hello, WolframAlpha.) For instance, a search on "small dogs" will bring up a list of breeds along with photos, descriptions, litter size, and the like. You'll be able to add your own columns of information and save those Squares if you're signed into a Google account. This feature will show up on Google Labs by the end of May.
* Rich Snippets adds to the summaries under each search result a line in gray that sums up the essence of the result, such as a further descriptor of a person with a common name or the number of stars a restaurant got in reviews.
I'm not sure any of these is going to change the game in search in itself, since they seem likely to appeal mostly to power users. Search expert Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, says the features may be mostly for bragging rights, so when rivals come out with something new, Google can say, "Oh, we have that." I actually think they're potentially more useful than that, but he may be right that most people won't bother using them.
But those last two features, at least, have the potential to raise more hackles at Web publishers, who have been complaining that Google essentially hijacks their content and places ads on it. While I and others think that's largely a crock, Google's growing power is undeniable and causing more and more pushback from a host of players.
In fact, I suspect that this event was not entirely aimed at convincing people that Google is already doing, or working on, what its many rivals claim as unique features. The search giant also may want to show that it's not a fat, happy monopolist resting on its laurels because it has rendered others unable to compete. We have to keep making these improvements, Google's saying, because there are so many others out there just a click away.
That message would be aimed at the U.S. Justice Department, whose new assistant attorney general in charge of antitrust, Christine Varney, has indicated plans to return to a more aggressive enforcement regime. (Though why so many stories take at face value Varney's demonstrably false claim last year that Google "has acquired a monopoly in Internet online advertising" is beyond me. If it has a monopoly, it's only in search advertising, which is no more than half the online ad market. Plus, the redundant phrase "Internet online advertising" raises questions of basic understanding of the whole subject. But I digress....)
Indeed, Mayer made a point after the event of claiming that Google is not "dominant" in search. "Search is a really healthy competitive space," she said, in one of the less convincing statements of the day. "It really keeps us on our toes. The race in search is far from over."
But if so, Google's walking a fine line. Although few if any claim that Google achieved its commanding position in search by anything but putting out a better product, antitrust concerns may well make it more difficult for the company to keep innovating as freely. Fair or not, as my colleague Steve Wildstrom noted this morning, Google's in the government's sights now, and will have to be more careful about how it expands its business.