Google Squared vs Wolfram Alpha
One of the next frontiers of search is taking all of the unstructured data spread helter-skelter across the Web and treat it like it is sitting in a nice, structured database. It is easier to get answers out of a database where everything is neatly labeled, stamped, and categorized. As the sheer volume of stuff on the Web keeps growing, keyword search keeps getting closer to its breaking point. Adding structure to the Web is one way to make sense of all that data, and Google is starting the tackle the problem with a Google Labs project called Google Squared, which Marissa Mayer mentioned earlier today at the company’s Searchology briefing.
Google Squared extracts data from Web pages and presents them in search results as squares in an online spreadsheet. Michael was at the event and got a personal demo (see video below). From Michael’s Searchology notes:
Google Squared is launching later this month in labs. Google Squared returns search results in a spreadsheet format. It structures the unstructured data on web pages. So a search for Small Dogs returns results with names, description, size, weight, origin, etc., in columns and rows.
Google is looking for data structures on the web that imply facts, and then grabbing it for Squared results. “It takes an incredible amount of compute power to create one of those squares,” she says.
This type of technology has obvious applications for many types of targeted searches, including product search, health search, scientific searches, you name it. There are dozens of semantic search startups trying to impose structure on the Web to perform similar tricks. Another high-profile search startup which is launching on Monday, Wolfram Alpha, takes a slightly different approach in that it simply ingests massive amounts of information into its own databases where it can query it to its heart’s delight. Already there is a bit of a rivalry between Google and Wolfram because getting back structured results is a major new direction for search.
Wolfram does a pretty good job parsing the information in its own databases, but those databases will never match what is available on the Web. Wolfram’s databases currently store only 10 terabytes of information, a tiny fraction of what is on the Web. (I will be posting my impressions of Wolfram’s search engine soon). Google Squared is an early attempt to take the messy data which exists on the Web and place it into simple tables. It is still very experimental and isn’t always on target, but you can see where this is going. Turning the Web into a giant database will crush any attempt to segregate the “best” information into a separate database so that it can be processed and searched more deeply.
In the video demo below, a search for “camera” sorts the results in different columns by images, description, and manufacturer, resolution, etc.. You can refine results by clicking on a particular column such as manufacturer. A search for “rollercoasters” sorts results by name, image, description, height, length, and number of inversions. But sometimes it gets confused. A search for “spaceships” turns up a Corvette and a missile carrier. It is going to be a while before this makes it out of Google Labs
Will Google squared be better as a research tool?
Even in the face of Wolfram Alpha, no one will deny that Google is a powerful research tool for our students. However, teasing out truly useful results can be challenging at best from the millions of pages returned by the average search. In response to this, Google revealed a new feature at their Searchology summit yesterday called Google Squared. To be released (not surprisingly) via Google Labs sometime close to the launch of Wolfram Alpha, squared adds an extra layer of semantic search to your Google research efforts.
As quoted in the Register, Google VP Marisa Mayer stated that
“One of the hardest problems in computer science is data abstraction – looking at the unstructured web and abstracting values and facts and information in a meaningful way in order to present it to users, building out some of these research spreadsheets in an automated way. But that’s no longer a hypothetical.”
The San Francisco Chronicle described the feature in a bit more detail:
compiles details from several Web pages and organizes them into a table on a single page, with multiple columns like a spread sheet. A search for “small dogs,” for instance, returns a list of breeds, an accompanying image and a brief description, plus the average height and weight of each breed.
Even Google acknowledged that this was still very much a “labs” feature that was imperfect at best. However, between Wolfram Alpha, Google’s efforts in semantic search, and a host of competitors that will be popping up in this field, we may very well be on the edge of Search 3.0. This is good news for our students, teachers, and library scientists struggling to help our students get the information they want from the billions of pages of junk (and millions of pages of interest) floating around the web.
And What Google has to say
Today we are hosting our second Searchology event, to update our users, partners, and customers on the progress we have made in search and tell them about new features. Our first Searchology was two years ago, when we were excited to launch Universal Search, a feature that blended results of different types (web pages, images, videos, books, etc.) on the results page. Since then Universal Search has grown quite a bit, adding new types of results, expanding to new countries, and triggering on ten times as many queries as it did when we launched it.
But as people get more sophisticated at search they are coming to us to solve more complex problems. To stay on top of this, we have spent a lot of time looking at how we can better understand the wide range of information that’s on the web and quickly connect people to just the nuggets they need at that moment. We want to help our users find more useful information, and do more useful things with it.
Our first announcement today is a new set of features that we call Search Options, which are a collection of tools that let you slice and dice your results and generate different views to find what you need faster and easier. Search Options helps solve a problem that can be vexing: what query should I ask?
Let’s say you are looking for forum discussions about a specific product, but are most interested in ones that have taken place more recently. That’s not an easy query to formulate, but with Search Options you can search for the product’s name, apply the option to filter out anything but forum sites, and then apply an option to only see results from the past week. Just last week, at our Shareholders’ Meeting, I had a woman ask me why she couldn’t organize her results by time, with the most recent information appearing first. “Come back Tuesday,” I wanted to say!
The Search Options panel also gives you the ability to view your results in new ways. One view gives you more information about each result, including images as well as text, while others let you explore and iterate your search in different ways.
Check out a video tour here:
We think of the Search Options panel as a tool belt that gives you new ways to interact with Google Search, and we plan to fill it with more innovative and useful features in the future.
Another challenging problem we have worked on is better understanding the information you get back from a search. When you see your results from a Google search, how do you decide which one has the best information for you? Or, how can we help you make the best decision about where to click?
We call the set of information we return with each result a “snippet,” and today we are announcing that some of our snippets are going to get richer. These “rich snippets” extract and show more useful information from web pages than the preview text that you are used to seeing. For example, if you are thinking of trying out a new restaurant and are searching for reviews, rich snippets could include things like the average review score, the number of reviews, and the restaurant’s price range:
These features really explore search from a broad and entirely new perspective. Because we realize that when you can’t quickly find just the exact information or content you need or want, it’s our problem, not yours. And it’s a problem with plenty of room left for innovation. Stay tuned.