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5/22/2013
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Google Search Gets Smarter

Update to Chrome for Android and desktop computers offers faster speed and better query understanding.

Google I/O: 10 Key Developments
Google I/O: 10 Key Developments
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Google has updated the stable channel of its Chrome browser to version 27, delivering improved speed and the beginnings of a more conversational approach to search.

Google software engineer James Simonsen says the updated Chrome loads Web pages 5% faster than the last version.

"A 5% improvement may not seem like much by itself, but our estimates show that when you add up those saved seconds across all Chrome users, it totals to more than 510 years of people’s time saved every week," he wrote in a blog post.

Chrome for Android also received some new features, including full-screen support, improved omnibox behavior and client-side certificate support, among other additions.

However, these additions to Chrome pale in comparison to the change that the update brings to Google Search: The new version of Chrome enables conversational search, a partial implementation of search innovation discussed last week at the company's annual developer conference. Specifically, the latest desktop version of Chrome lets Google speak answers back, which Chrome already does on mobile devices. This interface enhancement accompanies ongoing backend changes to Google Search that makes Google's responses seem smarter.

"Conversational search has started rolling out on Google.com in the latest version of Chrome," a Google spokeswoman confirmed in an email. "You can just click the mic in the search box, ask your question in a natural way, and get spoken answers."

[ Flickr is showing off new tricks also. Read Flickr Can Store Any Data, Not Just Photos. ]

What's missing still is "hotwording," the ability to speak phrase like "ok google" that tells the search engine to process the spoken words that follow as a query. That's expected later this year.

But the absence of hotwording doesn't detract from the utility of conversational search, which allows users to pose natural language queries, within limits.

Traditional Google Search works by identifying keywords in documents and returning links to the most relevant documents. Conversational search adds an understanding of semantics, through Google's Knowledge Graph. It allows you, for example, to pose a query like "Who is the President of the United States," to receive the answer "Barack Obama" (on a Card that's separate from the results list) and then to follow-up with a query like "How old is he?"

Google's conversational search system associates the pronoun "he" with the subject of your last query. Such smarts, while still short of sci-fi AI, make it much easier to communicate with Google.

For example, if you wanted to know what the weather will be like around Lake Tahoe this weekend, you might type "lake tahoe weather," which would return a Google Card graphic with the current weather and the expected temperatures for the next few days. Or you might type "lake tahoe weather this weekend," which would return the traditional search results list, requiring further interaction.

But using conversational search, you could speak into your mobile phone or into the microphone in your desktop computer, activated via Chrome, and ask, "Will it be sunny in Lake Tahoe this weekend?"

Google will speak the answer back: "No don't expect sunshine in Lake Tahoe. The forecast is 63 degrees and partly cloudy." And whether you typed that query or spoke it, Google will present its Card graphic with Saturday's forecast highlighted -- Google understood "weekend" in your query and translated that into Saturday.

It's not immediately clear when other desktop and mobile Web browsers will be able to trigger users' microphones so their computers can capture spoken Google queries. It depends upon how and when they enable the Web Speech API. Apple's next version of Safari, likely to be discussed at its developer conference next month, might add speech API support. The Aurora version of Firefox began supporting microphone streams in January, as part of the WebRTC specification. However, Firefox 21, the present release version, does not present the microphone icon (used to trigger speech input) in the Google.com search box. A Mozilla representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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