Google works to overhaul its search

Company wants its search engine to better understand the words in queries

Google is planning major changes to its search engine in an effort to make it easier and faster for users to get the information they need.

According to Google Fellow Amit Singhal, the company is working to give its search engine a better understanding of the words used in queries. Google wants to do away with simply searching for word strings and responding with website links, according Singhal.

Instead, Google wants to develop a new search engine to give users facts and answers to their queries.

"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," Singhal said in a statement emailed to Computerworld. "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."

The issue is that a search engine needs to understand the words being queried. "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," Singhal added.

The company is taking baby steps in that direction, but there's a long road ahead, he noted.

So what is Google doing to make its search engine smarter?

It's using technology it acquired when it purchased Metaweb in 2010. Metaweb has a free and open database called Freebase that offers a large collection of information on people, places and things. Google is using Freebase to help its search engine understand more words and phrases. The more terms Google's search engine knows, the more capable it will be of finding precise query results, Singhal said.

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said that if Google succeeds, the development could lead to a huge change for the entire search field.

"Over time, this could significantly change the results that Google serves up in searches," he said. "By adding semantic algorithms to the process, the results should be more suited to answering the questions people are actually asking rather than just delivering keyword matches."

The process should also reduce user frustration and "search fatigue," Olds said. "Increasingly, when I use Google to search something, the top results don't really tell me anything about what I'm looking for," he said. "If I'm looking to find out about, for example, an Intel processor speed, the top results might be, 'Buy Intel here' or prices. A better search would take me to an Intel specifications sheet or might even give me the speed of the processor right in the link summary."

The search overhaul would also be another hurdle for Microsoft Bing, Google's biggest search competitor. While Bing has held steady in the search market, it hasn't been able to make much headway in the face of Google's dominance.

"It does raise the bar for other search providers, particularly Microsoft's Bing," Olds said. "This should help Google maintain its more-than-comfortable lead over Bing."

Last fall, Google updated its search algorithm, looking to make about 35% of its search results more timely.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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