Every month, Google makes tons of tiny changes to the way search works. It shares them in company blog posts that present a list of carefully scripted bullet points with mysterious code names in an inscrutable order.
The company never comments on the changes beyond what they say in these announcements. But it's always informative to spread the puzzle pieces out on the table and see what Google is up to. Here's what changed in March.
As always, there are tons of items in this month's search quality highlights. This month, there are 50. Some of them are minor, some are redundant, and some you just don't need to worry about. But here's a breakdown of the interesting changes.
If Google doesn't work tirelessly to improve the quality of search results, its competitors can catch up. As Google Fellow Ben Gomes told ReadWriteWeb recently, the hard problems in search quality have to do with understanding the user's intentions. Learning to interpret synonyms is a big step there.
Google's search results often suggest synonyms for words in a user's query, and some of last month's updates turn down the aggressiveness of those. Google is also "eliminating duplicate logic" for synonyms in cases when no further suggestions are needed.
Other quality changes include better detection of people's names and improved identification of quality image results. Google is also bringing its preferences for page freshness to other kinds of queries beyond just news.
Google also refreshed the Panda algorithm adjustments designed to suppress spammy sites. It never elaborates much on those changes beyond tweets like this:
Panda refresh rolling out now. Only ~1.6% of queries noticeably affected. Background on Panda: goo.gl/mTKCH— A Googler (@google) March 23, 2012
We learned from Google Search Project Manager Johanna Wright that speed is the unsung hero of search. Users don't notice speed, they just get used to it. When something slows them down, they get frustrated. So Google often changes search features to make them faster, even if users won't notice.
Last month, Google reduced the number of back-end server calls needed for auto-complete, a search feature built purely for speed. It also improved language detection for auto-completing queries.
Another change improves results for people who use the Google search box to navigate to websites, which a surprisingly high number of people do all the time.
Google's recent incorporation of social network signals into search has freaked some people out, especially the fact that it uses Google+ in situations where other social networks would be more helpful.
Well, last month, without making a big fuss, Google launched a change with the code name "Prof-2" that "improves the comprehensiveness of public profile pages in our index from more than two-hundred social sites."
Google also improved the personalization signals in social search (but won't elaborate further), and it rolled out the +1 button in search for more countries and domains.
Google's Universal Search brought images, videos, maps and more alongside webpages in search results. Now Google provides direct answers to questions, too, instead of just linking to a website with the answer. It even does complex math. Google improved the accuracy of its short answers to questions by relying on semantic data from Freebase.
This month brought improvements to other kinds of rich search results Google provides. Mobile searches for Android and iOS apps now include icons, ratings, prices and download buttons. The Russian Hockey League (KHL) and UEFA Champions League both display live scores in search now, and Google launched a feature to find tennis scores, too.
There's no huge privacy news this month, but the two privacy-related changes are noteworthy. Google now signs users out on all machines whenever they change their password, eliminating the chance of staying logged in by mistake. The SafeSearch algorithm was also tuned this month, making it more precise and adding new ways of making unwanted adult content less likely to appear.