Written by Nitin Karandikar
At the Searchology press conference last week, Google announced a slew of new features that are getting integrated into their main search engine. The key focus was on a new feature called Universal Search. Google's Marissa Mayer explained this feature as follows on the Official Google blog:
"... [this is] the first step in the evolution toward universal search. Today, we're making that first step available on google.com by launching the new architecture and using it to blend content from Images, Maps, Books, Video, and News into our web results."
Here's what a sample search would look like, using this feature. In this case, searching for the term "hydrofoil" displays images embedded in the results (technically, the new feature is that the images could be anywhere on the page, rather than only at the top; but I'm not sure it makes all that much difference to an end user):
As with any exciting Google search announcement, this feature received a lot of coverage in the blogosphere: Read/WriteWeb, John Andrews, Manoj Jasra and many others. Interestingly though, Universal Search is not a particularly new idea - other search engines (especially the smaller "alt" search engines) already include this feature. Let's take a look at a few examples.
Hakia is one of the new general-purpose search engines, with an emphasis on "meaning-based" relevance of search results. Here's a search for the term "toyota" on this search engine - as the screenshot shows, the results incorporate news headlines, an image, a company profile and a systematic Table of Contents that neatly tabulates all of the available results data. In terms of organization of search results, it doesn't get any better than this!
Retrevo is a specialized search engine that focuses on providing comprehensive information about consumer electronics and helping users find the best gadgets to match a particular need. Right from the start, Retrevo results have included multiple data types consistent with their domain; search results automatically include Product Documents, Manufacturer Info and a preview of a product's User Guide (usually in PDF format). There are also tabbed links to forums, reviews, blogs and so on.
Clusty is a search engine that specializes in grouping results into tag clouds. The image below shows a news item included in search results, along with the table of contents.
Microsoft search gets dissed a lot in the media, compared to Google, but in fact they already had images embedded in Live.com search results.
Cross Language Information Retrieval is new
In addition to existing search engines, the Universal Search concept has been tried before elsewhere. Don Dodge has a thoughtful post on this topic, explaining why the concept of Universal Search failed before. Ashkan Karbasfrooshan of MojoSupreme (which created the MetaMojo search engine) also has an interesting post: Oh Google ... stop copying us!.
This is not to say that Google does not deserve kudos for adding new features and providing a better search solution for users. To be fair, Google has special challenges that most of the smaller search engines do not - as the market leader in Internet search, Google's search engine is used by a huge number of users. Any change to core functionality or user interface carries the risk of alienating these users, even when it's a change for the better; Google has to proceed with these changes slowly and carefully.
In that vein, one of the new features that is both new and innovative in Google's upgrade, is the concept of Cross Language Information Retrieval. Tony Ruscoe described it in his excellent Searchology article on Google Blogoscoped:
"Cross Language Information Retrieval, as Google are calling it, will initially be launched in just 12 languages. By using their statistical machine translation technology, Google will apparently translate your search query into other languages and then search websites written in other languages using your translated query."
What other search innovations will Google copy from alternate search engines in the future? It is certainly interesting to speculate. Add a comment below and let us know what you think! For ideas, check out our previous featured article: Top 17 Search Innovations outside of Google.