Google Goes Back to What It Does Well: Finding Things

Surprise! Google has completely transformed the way search works again. But this time, it's a kind of search that would have made the old Google proud. Today, starting with U.S., English-language users, Google unveils the Knowledge Graph. Search now looks at the words of your query and identifies the things in it. You're not just searching the Web anymore. You're searching the world.

From Words to Things

Most of Google users' queries are ambiguous. In the old Google, when you searched for "kings," Google didn't know whether you meant actual monarchs, the hockey team, the basketball team or the TV series, so it did its best to show you Web results for all of them.

In the new Google, with the Knowledge Graph online, a new box will come up. You'll still get the Google results you're used to, including the box scores for the team Google thinks you're looking for, but on the right side, a box called "See results about" will show brief descriptions for the Los Angeles Kings, the Sacramento Kings, and the TV series, Kings. If you need to clarify, click the one you're looking for, and Google will refine your search query for you.

When Google knows which thing you're asking about, this box becomes a resource in itself. It will fill in a brief description, likely culled from Wikipedia, and it will list a few key facts specific to the thing in question.

For example, it will show you when a person was born, when they died, where they went to college and so forth. But if you search for a roller coaster, it might tell you how many Gs you'll feel, what its longest drop is and who designed it. If it's a band, you'll see upcoming shows and the latest album releases. Oftentimes, all the information you need will be present right on the search page.

The box also shows related concepts underneath. So if you searched for Frank Lloyd Wright, you'll see links to his projects, too, as well as other famous architects. You can keep browsing through these related topics all day long.

If Google gets something wrong, you can report a problem right from the box. It will monitor corrections and correct its database, and it will generate a report for its outside data sources like Wikipedia.

How Google's Knowledge Graph Works

The Knowledge Graph brings to bear some technology Google has been working on for a while. In particular, it leans on its acquisition of Freebase in 2010. Freebase is a structured database of semantic information. It maps synonyms to help Google understand the meaning of words. It also incorporates other "gigantic, messy, redundant datasets" like Wikipedia, the World CIA Factbook, and Google Books. Some of it is freely available and some of it is licensed.

Google won't comment on the exact mix of sources (or the business deals involved), but Director of Product Management Johanna Wright says that "comprehensiveness is the goal." So far, that amounts to 500 million people, places and things and 3.5 billion defining attributes and connections.

As Google Fellow Ben Gomes told ReadWriteWeb in February, Google is going down the path of "understanding the relationships between things." By identifying the things in your query, Google can now provide you with all kinds of information about them, instead of just stacking up Web links.

For the next phase of search, there's a race on to see who can bridge the gap between the vague queries of the user - i.e. words - and the things they represent. Lately, Microsoft has been talking up its "entity engine," internally called Satori. With the new Bing, which began to roll out last week, Satori is a crucial component, identifying the things in a query and describing them in a new box called Snapshot. But Snapshot hasn't launched yet. Google got there first.

Search the World, Minus Plus?

Google-watchers will recall that Google has already radically changed its search this year. In January, it unveiled Search, plus Your World, its way of integrating personalized results into search using Google+. It was a controversial move, but at least you could turn it off.

It's worth noting that Google didn't mention Google+ or Search, plus Your World at all when it showed me the new Knowledge Graph features. In the slides, the toggle switch between "search" and "your world" weren't even there, as though the user had disabled personalized search in his preferences.

When I asked about it, Wright only said that "there really are not many changes to Search, plus Your World for now." When you search for a person, the Knowledge Graph will identify Google+ profiles as that person, but that's it. Today's launch is not about Google+. It's about Google. Remember Google? "Organizing the world's information?" If the Knowledge Graph is any indication, that Google is back.

Rolling Out the Knowledge Graph

As the Knowledge Graph grows up, Google wants to be able to answer complicated questions. Where can I find an amusement park with a vegetarian restaurant nearby? What is the coldest lake in the world in July? Now that Google recognizes the things in the query, it will be able to return answers, not just pages.

This is a big change. You'll see Knowledge Graph features in your searches about as often as you see Google Maps. It affects more queries than the entire launch of Universal Search did back in 2007, when Google added images, videos, news and books to its results.

Starting today, the Knowledge Graph is coming to English-language U.S. users on desktop, mobile and tablet searches from the browser. The native Google Search apps are coming soon, as are more countries and languages.

Lead image via Shutterstock