On May 12, Google held its second Searchology event to update its take on the future of search and to announce the release of several new features and tools that reflect its thinking about search. Google's new features address the question "how can we better understand the wide range of information that's on the web and quickly connect people to just the nuggets they need at that moment" (http://bit.ly/FVggv).
To that end, Google announced three new features, two of which tackle the problem of turning unstructured data into structured data to make search results more valuable and more relevant in answering specific questions and needs. Google Squared (www.google.com/squared), a Google Labs project scheduled for launch this week, does not return your typical set of search results. Instead, it looks for facts from webpages, pulls them together, and then organizes them into a table with rows and columns. At Searchology, the example "small dogs" showed a table of names of small dog breeds with descriptions, sizes, weights, and origins. Clicking in any cell reveals the source of the information. You can edit incorrect information, add additional rows and columns, and save results to your Google account.
Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience, framed it this way: "It is something that pushes search in an entirely new direction ... to take this unstructured information and present it in a structured way." Google Squared is experimental, but if Google believes that the future of search lies in structuring unstructured data, then applications such as Google Squared and the recently launched Wolfram Alpha (www.wolframalpha.com) could be very useful for the future of search. (For a description of Wolfram Alpha, read the NewsBreak by Woody Evans posted on May 21, 2009, titled "Wolfram Alpha-Semantic Search Is Born," http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/NewsBreaks/Wolfram-AlphaSemantic-Search-Is-Born-53892.asp.)
A second new search feature, Rich Snippets, addresses the problem of what kind of information will answer the question that is most important to searchers at that moment. To deal with this problem, Google plans to enhance the brief snippets of information you already see by asking webmasters to adopt open microformats (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microformats) or RDFa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RDFa) standards and to embed them directly into their code. For now, Google is supporting the microformats for people (LinkedIn) and reviews (Yelp). Additional formats will be rolled out over time.
How do they work? Well, if you were looking for restaurant reviews and found a page marked up using the open formats that Google had indexed, the Rich Snippet could reveal, at a glance, the number of reviews, a star rating, and a price range for the restaurant. People searching can be difficult too. But with additional information such as job title and location, you could expect better results. Webmasters can learn more about Rich Snippets at http://bit.ly/jdBwq. As an added benefit, the open microformats spread the wealth by allowing other search engines, browsers, and smartphones to use the code to provide richer and more-relevant search results for the end user. Rich Snippets will also be available for Google Custom Search and Google Site Search. Google's research shows that Rich Snippets enhance click-through rates, providing an economic incentive for webmasters to encode their pages with the structured formats.
Lastly, Google announced Search Options, a new set of features and tools that let you "slice and dice your search results and generate different views to find what you need faster and easier." Once you have done a search, the "show options" link appears right below the Google Logo. Search options are organized into four sections: All Results, Anytime, Standard Results, and Standard View. All Results shows three subcategories: videos, forums, and reviews. If you click on the video option, you will see videos on the right side of the page along with a new filtering option, duration of video (short, medium, and long). (Note: Both Yahoo! and Live also provide this same feature.) If you click on forums, you can limit search results by date or by relevance. Moving along, you can also limit your search results by time-recent results, past 24 hours, past week, and past year, or just set it for Any Time. Likewise, you also have the option of sorting search results by date or by relevance.
Standard Results includes images on the page and more text. The images are drawn directly from the search results along with a brief snippet of text. The Standard View includes two features: the Wonder Wheel and Timeline. Click on the Wonder Wheel and a bicycle wheel-type graphic will appear-the hub of the wheel contains the word or words in your search, and radiating out like spokes are related or linked terms to your search. Clicking on any of the spokes launches another wheel that is still attached to the first wheel. The standard search results appear to the right of the wheel. The Timeline feature shows a bar graph with the frequency or density of hits/pages in intervals of 20 or 50 years. Click on any segment of the bar graph; not only will you see results from that time period but you will be presented with a second bar graph that allows you to drill down to a specific year as well as a specific month. You can always start over by hitting the reset option.
Clearly, Google is exploring multiple ways to improve search by making it easier to find, organize, and refine search results and, thereby, making them more relevant to the user's needs. Experiment with the new search features and see if they improve your search experience.