Google may still dominate the online search market, but it will copy features from Microsoft Bing and Apple's iPhone 4S feature Siri in a bid to maintain that dominance. This sudden change comes after Google downplayed the advantages these other systems have over the current brute force approach employed by Google Search.
The changes were first revealed in a Wall Street Journal article that's based on an interview with Google executive Amit Singhal. In this article, Singhal says that Google will move away from supplying just a robotic list of links in response to search queries. It will instead use "semantic search" functionality to try and answer the question that the user is asking.
It will, in other words, work just like Microsoft's Bing search service. In fact, Microsoft specifically brands Bing as a "decision engine," and not as a general purpose search engine--even though it provides that functionality as well--in order to differentiate it from Google Search.
Google, meanwhile, has always taken the white-coated scientist route with search: Analyze the search query, compare it against a rated list of indexed web sites, and then blurt out the results, along with a cold, calculated number of results, which can often be in the very many of thousands. Useful? Of course. But it can also be hard to use, with no obvious way to tell the relevant search results from the irrelevant in a sea of links.
Over the next few months, Google will roll out semantic search features it says will make the service friendlier and far more useful. Rather than just punt you off to a list of web sites, it will try to answer the question underlying the query you've inputted. It will work more like "how humans understand the world," according to Mr. Singhal. "Today, "we cross our fingers and hope there's a web page out there with the answer." That's quite a put down for the company's core product, when you think about it. And quite an admission.
Under this new system, users who specifically ask questions will often see an answer to that question at the top of the search results. Users who search more generally will see more information about the current topic at the top of the results, leading to more intelligent follow-ups. In other words, it will look and work much like Bing does today.
The changes were triggered by recent successes by Bing, of course, but also by the PR magic generated by Apple's Siri feature in the iPhone 4S. Though little used, consumers are taken by commercials in which iPhone 4S users supposedly command their phones by voice like a scene out of a Star Trek movie. What the commercials don't show is that most Siri actions either fail or result in the user still needing to interact with the phone via touch-typing, as before. That is, Siri is usually used to trigger a normal search of some kind and is not the complete transaction.
But it is Siri's occasional ability to answer questions--a feature of Bing for years now--that Google wants to emulate in its own service. And it's not hard to imagine that the company will later evolve this technology to work perfectly with voice as well, putting its Android handset system on par with Siri and the voice command capabilities of other smartphones like Windows Phone.
Google still controls about 66 percent of the worldwide Internet search market and, more important, about 75 percent of search-based ad revenues. So its position is hardly tenuous. But moving to squash competitor advantages isn't just wise, it's crucial. On the Internet and with smart devices, consumers often switch allegiances very quickly. And Google clearly wants to avoid that issue.