Google is trying to be a more visual, more exploratory search engine

Google is trying to blow your mind about search. It would be an understatement to say that TikTok and Instagram are standing up to competition in a world where the internet is changing the way it works, but it’s not a big one. Google now exists in a more visual, more interactive web where users want to be surprised and delighted as much as they want answers to their questions. What in the world is a search engine for? The Google you see tomorrow may not be completely different, but the change is already beginning.

At its annual Search On event today, Google unveiled a number of new ways for people to search the web. Most of them continue Google’s trend of the past few years: trying to find more natural and more visual ways for people to enter search and get results. Now, instead of trying to type the perfect set of keywords into the search bar, you can ask Google a question by snapping a picture or into your phone’s microphone. Google is looking for more ways to provide information you might be interested in without asking you.

It’s a really interesting thought experiment: What would Google’s equivalent of TikTok’s For You page look like? Google’s search team doesn’t know for sure, but it’s working on it. And at least for now, it looks like the answer will start appearing on the home page of Google’s iOS app. This is where many of Google’s new features come into play and where many customers are already interacting with Google in new ways.

In interviews before the event, Google executives repeatedly said that search had been completely reinvented. For two decades, “the rules of the game have been pretty much: ‘Dear person, if you follow the rules and frame your queries correctly, we’re going to give you amazing answers to your needs,'” says Prabhakar Raghavan, SVP at Google. from search. “But thanks to incredible and apparently unprecedented advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision, the tables are now turning.”

These advances in artificial intelligence and computer vision are what power Google Lens and the new Multisearch feature, which lets you search with an image and then replace it with text. (Google always explains this with clothes — snap a picture of a green dress you like, type in “purple,” and you’re off to the races.) Multisearch has been available for a few months and is now rolling out worldwide. Google’s classic link list is also starting to change, replaced in some contexts with a mosaic of images and information widgets. (Sometimes links are still the best answer, Google reckons, but not always. Not even usually.) Google is also expanding its Immersive View on Maps, which gives you a real-time visual of a place before you even get there. Google’s ins and outs become more emotional over time.

Google’s search engine is undergoing a major change based on the announcements. The rules of the game Raghavan described were based on the idea that there was always one right answer somewhere – and all you had to do to get it was to ask Google exactly the right question. But increasingly, Google is accepting the idea that search is not a question-and-answer system. It’s a system of exploration, discovery, trying to learn things that don’t have an obvious answer. This changes both what users want from Google and the responsibility Google decides to give them.

People have been using Google in this more indirect way for some time, says Liz Reid, VP who oversees all of Google’s search products. Yes, of course most people still come to answer a question or find a link; Words like “Facebook” and “Weather” are the most popular search terms by a long shot. Others take a longer but more focused journey – they want to buy a bike or learn the history of the onion. “And then sometimes people wander off,” Reid said.

Travelers come to Google with less direct intent. They heard a term they didn’t know; they were talking with a friend about a place that sounded interesting; they want to know more about Adele. These are the people for whom TikTok is a surprisingly useful search engine, young internet users who Raghavan says experience the internet in a more native visual way. Google’s own discovery engines — the ones in the Google app feed, on the edge of your home screen on Android, Google News, and others — are already extremely popular, and Google is trying to bring some of that same energy to its most important product. .

GIF of Google's new chips in search results.

a:hover]:text-black [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black text-gray-63″>Image: Google

One way to see it in practice is a new way of thinking about autocomplete. In Reid’s demo, a user types “Best” and several suggestions appear with what Google calls “chips”: touchable buttons that add something to the search results. “Best” offers “Buy”, “Movies”, “Restaurants” and several others. Keep typing and find “Best Mexican Cities” for “retirement”, “for expats” and more. suggest. In some cases, Reid says, the purpose of the chips is to help refine your search for results. In others, it may broaden your search or suggest something helpful. Either way, Google’s AI system allows it to move from syntactic search, simply predicting the word you’ll type based on the last one, to semantic word, actually understanding the content and context of your search.

Once you’re on the (also increasingly visual) results page, Google also becomes (hopefully) a tool to expand your horizons from a ranked list of links. “If you think about our rating conceptually,” Reid says, “the more it slips, the worse it gets.” Tons of links came in handy when Google wasn’t reliably putting the best stuff to the top. Now, Reid says Google is good at it. So when you swipe, “probably what you want isn’t a slightly worse version of the same thing, it’s actually something slightly different.” In the future, the bottom of your results page can be a collection of results for a related search on the same topic or a related topic.

Standard Google search behavior has been the same for two decades: type in a search, scroll through the results, and if you don’t like what you see, check another query.

Standard Google search behavior has been the same for two decades: type in a search, scroll through the results, and if you don’t like what you see, try another query. The only tool you had was your keyword string. Raghavan says it’s completely backwards: “It’s very frustrating when our users blame themselves,” he says. “If you didn’t get what you wanted, we have a problem, we need to fix it.”

All of this gives Google more control over what you see in your search results. This raises long-standing questions about bias in Google’s algorithms and its perpetually mysterious ranking system, as well as Google’s own business model. The company has spent the last few years steadily hoarding more results for itself, redirecting users to other Google products, or simply placing the correct answer in the results. And now the company is starting to make more proactive decisions about what you see and when you see it. It doesn’t just offer related searches—it directs you to new topics and puts big touchable buttons right below the search box that tell you where to go. The Google search box used to be a blank white page known as the most valuable real estate on the web, and now it’s sending you signals from almost every pixel.

When it comes to questions about misinformation and problematic content on the Internet, Raghavan is adamant that those things aren’t primarily for Google to sue. “We promise universal access to information,” he says, “which means that if it’s on the Internet, unless it’s prohibited by law or some really restrictive policy, we’ll show it to you.” He often talks about questions that have many ideas but no clear answers, saying that Google’s job is to uncover useful things, but ultimately let users decide. The phrase “authoritative information” is a favorite of his and of Google in general.

In some cases, people disagree, but is there a clear truth in the matter? He admits it was difficult. “If you ask me, have ballot boxes been stolen in Arizona?” “I can’t tell you yes or no, because the ballot boxes in Arizona are not in our indexes.” Ultimately, he seems to be saying that Google only knows what it knows, and all it can do is not pretend otherwise. This has been difficult for Google in the past — the company occasionally provides incorrect information in answer boxes at the top of the page or ranks incorrect information high in results — and Raghavan says it’s always a work in progress.

There’s also the tricky question of user interface. Google’s original “10 blue links” results were imperfect but very informative; changing them to a full-screen image or a link to a video can be richer and less scannable at the same time. And as Google gets emboldened to show you information before you ask for it, it will have to better explain what you’re seeing and why without overloading the page. “It’s definitely a problem,” Reid said. “How do you make it simple enough, yet clear enough?” The same goes for the search box: “Empty boxes can be incredibly empowering and simplistic,” he says, “and in other cases they’re like, ‘What do I do with this box?’ as can be.” On the search box side, the goal is essentially to let anyone do anything and trust Google to figure it out. The results bit is more complicated and ultimately has a lot more on Google’s shoulders.

Many of these projects are still in the exploration and testing phase, Reid says, and it’s interesting to see what many of them turn into. Google moves slowly, especially when it comes to rethinking its core business. But he’s convinced that Google might just be an answering machine.

He uses woodworking as an example: If Google knows you’re interested in woodworking as a hobby, how can it help facilitate that? By answering questions, yes, but also by showing you new tools you didn’t know about, interesting YouTubers you’ve never heard of, places you can go to learn new skills, and more. You won’t be able to get it all with even the most skillfully crafted survey, and 10 blue links won’t get you there either. Google is still the world’s most popular search engine, but it needs to be more if it wants to take on TikTok and Instagram and remain the world’s portal to culture and information.

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