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5/16/2007
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Google Universal Search, A Massive Effort

The engineering endeavor took over two years and more than 100 engineers.

Google is finally getting it together.

At its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Tuesday, Marissa Mayer, VP of search products and user experience, said that Google has deployed new computing infrastructure to distribute queries across Google's different search indices and to return the aggregated relevant search results on the Web search results page.

"Google is integrating its siloed search engines to offer Google universal search," said Mayer.

Google's Web search now returns relevant videos, images, news, maps, and books, alongside Web site links.

The engineering effort took over two years and more than 100 engineers. The reason is that running a query across multiple search indices multiplies the computing resources required and Google's engineers had to figure out how to avoid multiplying its computational load.

To illustrate the changes this brings to the user experience, Mayer demonstrated how a search for "Nosferatu" returns not only links to text documents about the 1922 vampire classic but the film itself, playable on the search results page with a single click.

With Google's search results page going multimedia, it may only be a matter of time before Google ads on the results page follow suit. "We don't have anything to announce today," said Mayer, "but I do think this opens the door to the introduction of rich media to the search results page."

Google also today announced new search navigation features. Faced with a search term like "Python," the Google search results page will now include a strip of contextual links just below the search box to narrow the search, such as Blog, Books, Groups, and Code. Google also made its navigation bar more consistent across its various applications.

In addition, Google introduced Google Experimental, a place where users can try experimental Google search features prior to official public release. For instance, Google is working on a timeline feature that sorts search results by the time period referred to in the document. This is not necessarily the same thing as sorting documents by the date the file was actually created.

The significance of these announcements can be measured by the seniority of the Google personnel in attendance at the press event: Elliot Schrage, VP of global communications and public affairs; Craig Silverstein, Google's technology director (and first employee); Udi Manber, VP of engineering; Marissa Mayer, VP of search products & user experience; and Alan Eustace, senior VP of engineering and research, not to mention other Google engineers.

"Search is the core of our business and frankly speaking... search doesn't get the attention it deserves because we're victims of our own success," said Schrage.

So too are Ask.com, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Each of the other major search companies offers innovations that compare favorably to Google in certain areas. Ask, for example, has long had arguably superior contextual navigation features.

"It's very much in line with what we've been doing for the past three years," said Eckart Walther, VP of products for Yahoo Search, about Google's announcement. The trend, he said, was toward a single query box rather than various vertical, or topical, search engines.

Yahoo Search currently includes playable video content on the search results page when appropriate. For instance, a search on Yahoo for Blades of Glory returns text links and a video player to see the film's trailer. Yahoo's inclusion of video content, however, appears to apply only to specific searches, in contrast to Google's complete integration of its indices.

Walther also said that Google's upcoming search translation capability -- which Google's Udi Manber described as a way for searchers to get relevant results in foreign languages translated and returned -- "sounds suspiciously similar to something we launched two years ago."

It is the future, however, that Google's competitors need to focus on. Google is already well on its way there.

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