At a media event in San Francisco on Tuesday, Google introduced a series of mobile and desktop search innovations intended to make search faster and more relevant.
The search company launched a new interface for its mobile search webpage, Voice Search on the desktop, Search by Image on the desktop, and Instant Pages, a way to pre-load certain web pages so that they appear instantly when clicked on from search results.
The Forum Building at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts where Google's presentation took place was decorated with human-sized test tubes sporting Google's colors and pictures of gears as props that underscored search's position at the intersection of art and science.
Google Fellow Amit Singhal began by describing how search is about breaking down barriers between the user and knowledge.
"Every time you're missing a fact or piece of information, your train of thought is derailed and you're slower to acquire the knowledge you want," said Singhal. "With search, we strive to make sure there are no derailments in your train of thought."
One of the biggest barriers to the acquisition of knowledge, lack of access to a computer, is becoming less significant, Singhal said, as more and more people carry mobile phones. He presented graphs of desktop search queries, which decline on weekends and then showed graphics of mobile search queries, which rise on weekends, when people are away from their workplace computers.
Singhal's data showed how Google's search business is growing and that it remains a priority for the company.
"Over the last two years, we have seen 5x growth in our mobile traffic," said Singhal. Google mobile searches are growing, he suggested, because the company is focused on relevance, simplicity, and speed. With mobile searches, he said, it's even more important to get the first search result right.
To sustain its mobile search momentum, Google has introduced new shortcut icons on its mobile search interface that lead to frequently searched categories. These include Restaurants, Coffee, Bars, and More, which leads to a submenu that also includes Fast Food; What's Nearby; Shops; ATMs; Gas Stations; and Attractions.
Google has also made its search results map remain on-page when the user scrolls through local search results. This provides extra context for listings and makes it easier to tell where listings are in relation to the user.
Borrowing a feature from its mobile search apps for Android and iOS devices, Google has attached a "+" button to its mobile query box to add auto-suggested keywords to searches, thereby allowing the user to append further terms. This makes the process of entering long queries significantly faster.
Google engineering director Scott Huffman announced that Google Goggles, the company's application that accepts images as search query input, now can translate images of Russian Cyrillic text into English, the first non-Roman character set for the service. He also presented a preview of an improved Android tablet UI to be released in a few weeks. The revised interfaces for search and image search make better use of screen real estate and include improvements like bigger tap targets, larger images, and more fluid, infinite scrolling.
Mike Cohen, manager of speech technology at Google, revealed that Google has seen mobile spoken queries surge, growing by 6x in the past year.
"Every day, two years of non-stop speech comes into our system," said Cohen.
Interestingly, Google immediately anonymizes spoken queries, something it does not do as quickly for typed queries.
"We don't have any way of associating things that have been said with the individual who said them," said Cohen.
Google keeps voice search data for 24 months because it uses speech data to improve the accuracy of its speech recognition. Cohen said that voice search is available in 27 languages to about two-thirds of the world's Internet users.
And in an effort to make its mobile search technology available to users of desktop computers, Google has added voice input for search as an option for Chrome users. Those using the Chrome browser need only click on the microphone on the right-hand side of the Google Search box and speak a query.
Google is also introducing Search by Image, a service that allow desktop computer users to submit images as queries and to receive images that match as search results.
Johanna Wright, director of product management for search, described Search by Image as Google Goggles at web-scale and said it would be rolling out globally on images.google.com over the next few days. To submit an image query, users can copy and paste an image URL, upload an image from a desktop, drag and drop an image file into the Google Image Search box, or use a Chrome or Firefox extension.
Search by Image goes not include specific facial recognition algorithms, but will return matches to images of people based on image similarity. Google has made a conscious decision not to deploy facial recognition technology while it weighs the privacy implications; Facebook has deployed facial recognition in a limited form to suggest friends to tag in pictures.
Singal returned to the stage to note that it has been less than a year since Google Instant was introduced and to introduce another innovation designed to make search faster, Instant Pages.
"With Instant Pages, sometimes when you click on a result the page will be just there, instantaneously," said Singhal.
Instant Pages depends on Google's ability to predict which search results will be relevant to users. Google can't pre-load every page in the search results list, but it does try to anticipate the pages the user will find most relevant and load them before they're requested. According to Singhal, Google can make such predictions surprisingly well, due to the vast amount of analytics data it collects.
Instant Pages also depends on Chrome, at least at the moment. It's available in the Chrome Developer channel today, and later this week in the Chrome Beta channel, with a mobile release planned in a few weeks. Google will be providing information to website operators so they can identify Instant Page load requests and distinguish them from actual visitor traffic.
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