Google calls this innovation a Knowledge Graph. Just as Facebook's social graph is a set of associated data about people and their friends, Google's knowledge graph is a set of associated data about a specific search query.
Previous search milestones like Search Plus Your World and Universal Search have focused on expanding the content that Google can present. Or they have emphasized search result delivery speed and input methods. Google's Knowledge Graph represents an attempt to make Google's search engine smarter.
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What this means for users is that certain queries will generate a set of facts to be displayed in the right-hand sidebar panel, alongside the expected search results list. For example, a search for Marie Curie would return a Wikipedia summary of the famous scientist's life, dates of birth and death, the name of her spouse and children, elements she discovered, schools attended, and searches associated with her.
What this means for websites like Wikipedia could be less visitor traffic: A searcher looking for widely queried facts may find no reason to click on any of the Google search results links if his or her query has been answered on the Google search results page.
Google SVP of engineering Amit Singhal attributed the change to Google's growing understanding of what users deem to be relevant and a better sense of how facts are related.
"We've always believed that the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want," he explained in a blog post. "And we can now sometimes help answer your next question before you've asked it, because the facts we show are informed by what other people have searched for."
Some of Google's improved understanding comes from its 2010 acquisition of Metaweb's Freebase database. Google said when it bought the company that its goal was to better understand the relationships between real-world entities.
With its Knowledge Graph, Google becomes less of a search engine and more of an answer engine. It remains to be seen whether Google's answers dam the flow of curiosity that carries clicks and revenue downstream to other websites.
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