New Google search keeps users on page

Last updated 08:17 17/05/2012

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Google is revamping the way it handles searches in the United States to give users quick access to answers without leaving the page, the company said.

The new search process is based on what Google calls the "knowledge graph" - meaning that it tries to pinpoint faster the context surrounding its users' keyword searches.

"Over the years, as search has improved, people expect more," said Amit Singhal, vice president of engineering at Google and the head of search. "We see this as the next big improvement in search relevance."

The redesign, which for now affects only US-based English language users, is gradually being rolled starting Wednesday (local time) on desktop, mobile and tablet platforms. Google plans to eventually expand the new search features outside the US, Singhal said, without specifying when.

Many of the results will carry more graphical elements, compared to standard lists of search results, such as maps and pictures of related results, often in separate pop-ups. The idea is to let users easily discover what related material interests them and click through to it, Singhal said.

The offering is the latest example of search companies moving away from offering a list of text-based links as search results. Last week, Microsoft's Bing unveiled a redesign that includes a "snapshot" column. Last year, Yahoo rolled out its "search direct box."

Google is by far the leader in search, with 66 percent of the US market, according to comScore. But it sees other sites such as Facebook as competition, as users there can poll their friends and acquaintances for information on various topics without leaving the Facebook ecosystem.

Under Google's existing algorithm, a search for "kings" might pull up results for the ice hockey team, the basketball team, and the TV series, all on the first results page.

On the revamped Google, a box will pop up in the top right-hand corner of the screen, giving users the option right away to limit their search to the desired meaning of "kings."

For some searches, such as on prominent people, Google will automatically pull up a summary box with key information on that topic. The summary box will also appear on the top right of the page.

A search for architect Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, pulls up the first line of his Wikipedia entry, plus dates of birth and death, thumbnail pictures of his best-known buildings, and thumbnail pictures of other architects people commonly search for.

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The upshot is that many users will end their  internet search without leaving Google's pages, when in the past they might have continued to a site such as Wikipedia, which is collaborating with Google on the new search features.

Google said it could actually drive more traffic to Wikipedia, which will be prominently linked to in the summary boxes. A Wikipedia spokesman said Google is using Wikipedia information in an appropriate way.

The new techniques are based in large part on work done at online data collection Freebase, Singhal said. Freebase was developed by Metaweb, a company Google acquired in 2010.

Google is also working on being able to better answer more complex questions such as "What are the ten deepest lakes in Africa?" that require its algorithms to factor in several different criteria.

But it may never be able to crack some users' toughest questions, such as "Does my hairstyle make me look fat?" which Singhal said was a real user query.

"We are not magicians," he said. "We are just computer science geeks."

- Reuters

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