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Google Universal and Its New Navigation
by
Posted On May 29, 2007


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At Google’s Searchology event on May 16, 2007, Google announced several major changes at the search engine, all of which have now begun to appear in Google results. The introduction of universal search, a new universal navigation bar, contextual navigation links, more related search suggestions, experimental search, and cross-language searching may not jump out to the casual searcher. Yet the aggregate effect of these changes is one of the more substantial rewrites that Google has done.

Not all of Google’s worldwide search sites are using the new universal search or display the universal navigation bar. According to a Google spokesperson: "At this time, universal search results are only available on Google.com, English only. Making new products and services available globally is a top priority for us and we are working as quickly as possible to make it available in additional languages but do not have specific dates to share." Note that even people searching directly at Google.com will not see these new features if they have chosen a non-English interface language, including the humorous options of Elmer Fudd or Pig Latin.

Google has expanded well beyond its early start with a single database of indexed Web pages. Over the past several years, it has added many new searchable databases including News, Scholar, Books, Patents, Video, Images, and more. For several years, Google has been working on finding a way to integrate these disparate databases. As Marissa Mayer (Google’s vice president of search products and user experience) said at the Searchology presentation, the new universal search approach is about "breaking down these silos of information that have been built up and ultimately integrating them all into one single search experience." Google has been working on laying the groundwork for this change over the last few years, and Mayer notes that the current version is just a beginning and that the rest "will unfold over the next several years."

What Has Changed?

So, what has changed? Google is taking several approaches to this mixing of content. Four sections of a Google results page may display differently than in the Google of a few weeks ago. First, the new universal navigation bar at the top-left corner links to an expanded number of databases. Second, the new navigational context links below the Google logo may link to other content verticals. Third, individual records from other databases may be integrated within the regular Google Web results. And fourth, additional content may be shown below the regular search results.

The most visually obvious change—the universal navigation bar—is seen on the front page itself. The links to other databases that used to appear right above the search box have been moved to the upper-left corner of the page. Beyond just moving its location, the navigation bar has expanded its content as well. Visible on the screen are links to Web, Images, Video, News, Maps, Gmail, and more. The Gmail link is new. The greater expansion occurs under the more link, which pops up a box on the screen with a much longer list of Google search databases and applications: Blog Search, Blogger, Books, Calendar, Documents, Finance, Groups, Labs, Orkut, Patents, Photos, Products, Reader, and Scholar.

The new contextual navigation links are now found on a search results page just below the Google logo in the formerly blue horizontal bar (now a gray gradient) that also contains the estimated results number. At a minimum, the contextual navigation links should show the Web. At other times, any of the other search databases can be displayed, depending on the query and whether or not Google’s algorithms determine that content from other databases might be relevant. So links to Maps, Books, Video, Images, News, Code, Scholar, Patents, Products, and Blogs could all appear. These dynamically generated, query-dependent links duplicate the links in the upper universal navigation bar, but Google’s hope is that "users can find a wider array of information on their topic, including data types they might not have initially considered."

Both the expanded links in the universal navigation bar and the addition of the contextual navigation links try to highlight that more information is available in other Google databases. Yet the more significant change is within the regular Web results section itself. Google’s idea of universal search is to bring records from the other databases into the Web results. According to Mayer, the initial implementation of universal search will pull from only five of the additional databases: Books, Video, Images, News, and Local. How this works is that one or more records from these other databases may replace one of the Web result records. For example, a search on [steve jobs] during the Searchology presentation brought up images at the top, a link to a news story, and a YouTube video. The news story and the video take the place of standard Web results. The video, at least those hosted on Google Video or Google-owned YouTube, can be played directly from within the search results page.

Again, many searchers may notice little change, as these new results only show up for certain searches. Within the main Web results area, most of the results remain Web page links. Yet for some searches, the Web results will be replaced with a Video, News, Book, Local (which could be a map), or Image result.

Finally, near the bottom of the search results page after the end of the "regular" search results, Google may now show several additional sources. More suggested searches under the heading of "Searches related to" are being shown. Again, the [steve jobs] example during the Searchology presentation brought up about eight related search suggestions. Additional links to content from the other databases can show up here as well. On the [steve jobs] search, three results from the News Archive database, which links to both free and fee older news stories, are displayed.

As Google rolls out these new initiatives, especially during these early days, expect frequent changes. For example, the [steve jobs] search that Mayer showed now includes neither the Image results nor the related searches. According to another Google spokesperson, a search on [python] "will now generate links to Google Blog Search, Google Book Search, Google Groups, and Google Code." Yet when I tried the same search, at first, none of those contextual links were displayed. Later, when they did work, the Blog links never did show up.

But, Wait! There’s More

At the same time that Google introduced universal search, it also set up Google Experimental (www.google.com/experimental). This Google Labs project lets searchers choose alternative methods of displaying results. For example, the contextual links can be replaced with either left- or right-hand navigation. Another experimental search option introduces keyboard commands to move around the search results page while a timeline and map view provides some unique analyses of a subset of search results on a timeline or a Google map.

Announced at Searchology but not available until last week, Google’s cross-language information retrieval (CLIR) enables searching one language with words from another. Available as of May 24, CLIR was added to Google Translate (www.google.com/translate_s). Enter a search term in any one of the listed languages and search Web pages that are written in another language. The search results then link to the original page in the original language as well as a translated page. Available languages include English, Arabic, Chinese (two versions), French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. With CLIR, a Russian-speaking searcher can search English-language pages and see results machine-translated into Russian. English speakers can search and view English-language versions of Arabic or Korean pages.

All these changes at Google have been worked into the overall design subtly enough that many searchers may notice few of the changes. But for the information professional, these open up new searching opportunities and may lead to a change in searching behavior. The CLIR and Google Experimental give new ways to search and display Web information. The universal search and navigation changes can lead to fewer Web results on some searches and new ways to switch between Google’s growing number of databases.


Greg R. Notess is the internet columnist for ONLINE and the author of Teaching Web Search Skills (www.notess.com/teaching) and SearchEngineShowdown.com.

Email Greg R. Notess
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