Photo: Matt Rosoff
Google just wrapped up an event in San Francisco to talk about the future of search and introduce some new features to its search engine.Amit Singhal, the number-two leader of Google’s search business, took the wraps off a feature called Instant Pages that will load Web pages from Google results instantly.
Like Instant Search made searching faster, Instant Pages makes the next step — clicking through to a result — faster.
It works by guessing that you’re going to click on the top result, and preloading the page in the background. It will launch only on the Chrome browser this week, but Google has made the source code available and hopes other browser makers will incorporate it as well. It’s also coming to the Google Toolbar for other browsers, eventually.
Other announcements included voice search on the desktop and the ability to search image files — you drag an image from your desktop to the search pane and it will try and match it with pictures on the Web. Both cool features, both Chrome only to start with.
Overall, these improvements feel pretty incremental, but that’s how Google has to roll — keep quietly improving the user experience and people will keep using it instead of switching to Bing.
No mention of social or search spam, two other big issues that have been coming up a lot lately.
Here’s our live coverage from earlier:
9:30 PT: Waiting for the event to start, listening to chill techno with voices in a language I don’t recognise. Shazam says it’s “A Zed and Two L’s” by Fila Brazillia. Whoever picked this music is hipper than me. (Not hard.)
9:34: Singhal is taking the stage now. Three topics today: mobile, desktop, and what’s next for Google Instant. Search is about removing barriers between you and the knowledge you seek, instantaneously, without interruption.
9:37: The biggest problem with quest for knowledge — you’re not in front of a computer. That’s where mobile comes in.
9:40: Now he’s showing search data desktop vs. mobile. Desktop search queries dip on Friday and Saturday, but mobile picks up.
Over a 24 hour period, desktop search picks up around 9 in the morning, drops off in the evening. Almost no action at night.
But mobile search actually peaks between 9 pm and 11 pm. You’re home, not searching on your desktop, but keep searching on mobile devices.
9:42: Here’s a chart of Google’s overall search traffic on the desktop in its first three years in the blue line, and mobile seach for the last three years on the red line. Note that there’s a slowdown over Christmas on desktop, but not on mobile.
(Aside: I hate companies that refuse to label the X axis on growth graphs. How many users are we talking about here? Or is this queries? Per day? Per minute?)
Speed is still the killer app. Along with relevance and simplicity.
9:48: Now Google is showing off some features in mobile search.
NEW: Icons on mobile search page to search for restaurants and other local searches — restaurants, bars, and coffee are the default three on the home page. Google knows me!
New interface for local search results — shows your location on a map at the top of results.
(It looks a lot more like Places searches on the desktop version of Google.)
Searches on stock ticker symbols comes up with an interactive ticker widget at the top. Launched back in March.
Auto-fills words for complicated queries when you start typing — called query builder. New tablet interface, bigger images.
9:56: Google Goggles with Translate — translate in Russian. So you pull out your phone, take a picture of a sign in Russian, and it’ll translate into an English search query. Very helpful for reading menus. (Note: this isn’t really a new feature. It’s been around since early 2010. Russian is a new addition.)
Now Mike Cohen, leader of Google’s speech technology, is taking the stage to talk about speech recognition in search.
Mobile speech inputs has grown 6x in one year. The equivalent of 2 years of non-stop speech comes into the system every day.
10:00. Stating the obvious: for speech to work, it has to be accurate. Google improves constantly by feeding data — that’s how it figures out accents, weird word phrasing, and so on. For U.S. English alone, they feed the system 230 billion words.
Languages — now covers 66% of the world’s population. Button on every Android phone means speech is built in.
Johanna Wright, director of product management for search, is here to talk about bringing mobile innovations back to the desktop.
Voice search on mobile — say “translate squirrel to Spanish” and it just works. But people are sceptical because it’s not everywhere.
NEW: Voice search on the desktop. Little microphone will appear on the main Google search page. Click on it, speak, “pictures of nebula,” you get pictures of nebula. (This works only on Chrome browsers. Meh.)
Works with “recipe for spaghetti with bolognese sauce.” Knows the difference between “Worcester Mass” and “Wooster College” (which are pronounced the same way.)
Combining translate with speech recognition: “translate to Spanish where can I buy a hamburger in my neighbourhood.” It actually works.
10:10: Sometimes you don’t have the words to search for something.
Random picture on your computer — no geographic info attached, no tags.
NEW: Search by image on desktop. You drag the image from your desktop into the search box and it conducts a query.
Somehow it figured out that the picture was a guy standing on Nea Kameni in Greece, even though Google didn’t have this picture in its image database. Just compared with other pics of the same place.
Another example, you can drag the “Y U NO Guy” image to the Google search box and it will figure out what you’re looking at and return the right results.
Image search rolling out globally on images.google.com, when you see the camera on your search box it means it’s ready.
Four ways to access — copy and paste image URL, upload from desktop, drag and drop from desktop. Also Chrome and Firefox extensions so you click on an image and a search is one click away.
10:17: Now Singhal is back to talk about speed. Google Instant was introduced last year, saves 2 to 5 seconds per query. Rolling out wider geographies, including new Latin American countries.
NEW: Google Instant coming to image search. Rolling out “in coming weeks.” Works pretty much like you’d expect — type and you get images showing up and changing as you type.
This was probably amazingly hard to do, but as a demo it’s kind of flat.
10:20: Flipping channels on a TV is still faster than loading a Web page. Still takes 5 seconds to load a page.
NEW: Google Instant Pages. Click on a search result and it just loads instantly.
Demo now. Nothing precached on the machine. Searching on Wapo for Washington Post side. Click on result and it loads immediately. No waiting for text or images to download. Timed literally 0.0 seconds. With Instant Pages disabled, took 3.2 seconds.
Is this a Chrome-only feature? They’re demoing it on Chrome, haven’t mentioned other browsers yet.
10:28: So how does it work? Still have to fetch and render the page.
So Google is preloading Web pages from top results during the 15 seconds or so that you take to scan search results. It will do it only on search results where they’re pretty sure you’re going to click on the result.
Looks like it does require Chrome’s prefetching.
Can save another 2 to 5 seconds, just like Instant Search did. Save up to 10 seconds per search.
Instant Pages coming this week in Chrome Beta, and available today in Chrome’s developer version.
10:34: Now we are into Q&A.
Q. Will Instant Pages be coming to Firefox?
A. The code is already in the developer version of Chrome which is open source, so could be incorporated into Firefox and other browsers.
Q: Prerendering has been around for a long time, what’s different about this?
It’s only useful when you can predict next action with confidence. So basically Google KNOWS what you’re going to click on.
Q. Anything about TV?
A. We will bring all techniques to all Android devices, which includes Google TV.
Q. Is voice on desktop Chrome only?
A. Yes, Chrome only. Rolling out this week.
Q. You showed growth chart for queries vs early days, what about advertising growth?
A. Same — very good.
Q. What about impact of Instant on advertising?
A. “We have been getting very good clickthroughs.” Finding that people search more which has positive effect.
Q. How often can you correctly predict the page?
A. Won’t say, but far better than we expected.
Q. How do you make sure prerendering doesn’t affect analytics?
A. API lets Webmasters see if something’s being prerendered. They can take appropriate steps to make sure.
Q. What about image search — do you keep image and associated info?
A. Same privacy constraints as regular searches — we keep anonymized query info for 9 months, cookie for 18 months, but it’s not identified to you.
Q. Will you use Google Toolbar to bring these features to other browsers?
A. “Our desire is to take every feature on Google and make it available on every touchpoint.” So yes.
Q. Any connection to Chromebook timing? They launch tomorrow?
A. I’m sure that some of the features we have here will be graphically beautiful and will be used, but timing is coincidental.
Q. How do you look at competitive landscape?
A. Competition good for users. We only focus on users. In search game, where competition is just a click away, the fastest innovator will win.
Alan Eustace, Sr VP of Knowledge: “Search is the core of our business, it’s what we do, it’s what we’re good at…investment levels are increasing. We have a long set of challenges and opportunities that we’re laser focused on.” Faster, easier to use, doing a better job on queries that we miss today.
Q. Do you look at search speed as a competitive advantage for other tools like Chrome and Android?
A. Speed is important on all platforms, all browsers. Instant Pages — opening source code, we’d very much like all browsers to take on these standards. We don’t think of it as Chrome or Android or any other particular product. It’s about search users.
Q. How close is search by image like facial recognition, which you’ve said you won’t do?
A. We’re able to identify where you’ve taken a photo, but we do not do face recognition. Technology is content agnostic — we don’t do “island in Greece recognition” either. It’s matching pixels.
If you upload a famous picture and that picture is out there, you will probably find a copy of that picture.
Q. Is there a deeper facial recognition tech that you’re not using?
A. No, we don’t use it.
Q. How is search organised? Seems like all you guys are working on it?
A. Alan Eustace: We did have a reorg. We were organised functionally, I was doing all engineering, lot of slicing of my time. We narrowed down into product areas. Knowledge is the area I’m responsible for.
The reason Larry Page made the title “knowledge” — he thinks Google should understand how things are interrelated, understanding concepts. He wants us to know more, not just find better. Metaweb acquisition (last year) is a good example.
Understanding people, relationships, authorities, all related to knowledge.
Amit is basically running search. Other people working on back-end. Used to be separate product and engineering orgs, not doing that anymore. People sitting together, working together.
Amit Singhal: There’s data. From data emerges information. From information emerges knowledge.
Google has done a good job of converting data (Web pages) into information. Focusing on knowledge is a natural progression of pyramid.
Q. Do you provide voice query info to lawful subpoenas, and in what forms?
A. Queries are anonymized, we don’t associate a query with an individual. We just don’t save it.
Q. Why not putting out Instant Pages on mobile yet?
A. Testing. Want to make sure that they can handle the load.
Q. What about malware sites? Won’t this give them an easy way to get clickthroughs?
A. Not going to preload those pages. We take security seriously, blah blah blah.
Q. Does Instant Pages only load one page? Or multiple?
A. Only one. Algorithms confident about first result.
Q. Are all pages treated equally in Instant Pages, or will popular pages come up quicker?
A. Instant Pages is based on our prediction — if a user is going to click, we will bring it up. Plain and simple.
Q. Privacy: what about property recognition? Take a picture of a house or business, could you tell who lives there?
A. Same as face recognition — just matching pixels. Search by image works best with things that are well documented. Take a picture of a famous building, it’ll work well. Less famous building like your house, probably not going to work as well.
Q. Why no mention of social or +1 button?
A. It’s important, +1 is new. Been an exciting year. We’re pleased with what we’re seeing. Not today.
Q. How does this affect your economic value? Higher search volume? Quality?
A. If you do the right thing by the user, give them info you want right away, that’s why they’ll come back again and again to Google. User satisfaction.
We do a lot of experimentation with speed. Saving 4 to 10 seconds is great for Google and great for users.
Q. Does Instant Pages help you collect info about what you’re interested in? Privacy issues?
A. No, you don’t need to be logged in.
That’s a wrap — more information is available on the Inside Search blog.
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