LIVE Inside Google Search Event: Search by Image and Voice, and Faster Too

Google will shortly provide an “under the hood look at Google Search” for a group of reporters and bloggers in San Francisco. According to the invitation, Google Fellow Amit Singhal, who for a decade has headed the core search ranking team, and others will “share our vision and demo some of our newest technology and features.”

It’s uncertain what Google will talk about, but events like this often are a forum for introducing new features. The last time Google did a similar event, the company introduced Google Instant, which shows search results as you type–a very significant change in its iconic search engine. Given how much competition Google’s facing not only in search but from social services from Facebook to Quora, it seems likely the search giant will have some notable new features or services to talk about. I’ll be liveblogging the highlights (as will many others). You can also watch it here. And you can submit questions to insidesearch 2011@google.com.

UPDATE: Google announces three key new features:

1) Voice search on desktops and notebooks, not just mobile.

2) Search by image, not just words.

3) Instant Pages, which eliminates load times when clicking on pages in top search results.

Bottom line for us: Easier and faster search no matter where you are.

Bottom line for Google and its competitors: It has no intention of getting one-upped on mobile devices.

PR honcho Gabriel Stricker introduces the event, and Singhal comes onstage to promise “numerous exciting things” they’ll talk about. A lot will be about getting rid of barriers between you and the information you want: Knowledge emerges from you having facts and information. With search, we strive to make sure there are no derailments in your train of thought. Search is all about removing these barriers between you and the knowledge you seek.

One of the biggest barriers: You’re not in front of a computer all the time. But with mobile devices, that’s not such a problem anymore. He shows Google search traffic on desktop search over the week. It drops toward end of week, then starts to rise on Saturday and Sunday. For mobile, though, search stays steady through the week until Friday evening, when it rises before a slight decline into Sunday.

By time of day, search traffic is dead at 5 a.m., then rises very quickly, dips around noon, and at evening, traffic slows down significantly around 9 p.m. That’s for desktop again; for mobile, there’s also a fast rise in the morning, a notable uptick around lunchtime (texting), with gradual rises through 11 p.m., after which traffic drops fast. Your quest for knowledge does not slow down, he says, when you have a mobile computer at hand all the time. We’ve seen 5X growth in mobile search traffic (didn’t catch over what period).

At Google, our job is to get a hole-in-one every time. That’s harder on mobile–screens are smaller, so it’s even more critical you get the first result right. Google’s approach to desktop search laid the foundation for mobile search success, Singhal says. Keys are relevance (Google’s algorithms), simplicity of Google’s interface, and speed of results–all especially key for mobile.

Scott Huffman, engineering director for mobile, comes on to talk about how mobile search is breaking down barriers to the quest for knowledge. (Google seems to be trying to elevate itself above the competition by emphasizing how it wants its search to provide not just immediate answers, but knowledge. We’ll see if this is more than semantics.)

In mobile, we’re constantly thinking about how to make entering the query easier, then selecting a result to get an answer. Googler Steve will be demonstrating some stuff, so here’s the meat of the event. A shot of the mobile phone search shows several icons, like restaurants, bars, and coffee, at the bottom of Google’s iconically spare search query page. Click on Restaurants, and you get joints close to you, with address, phone, reviews, etc.

Huffman also demos Google’s Instant Search, launched on mobile in March.

He searches “Hilton Hotel Moscow,” where he will be visiting. He types in “HI” and Hilton hotels shows up. Then he types “mos” and the Hilton in Moscow shows up in the results. Very fast, very few clicks. There’s a spyglass icon, introduced a couple months ago, that brings up a visual search mode, showing instant previews of pages.

Now he pulls out a tablet and starts searching for St. Basil’s Cathedral. There’s a more open, easier-to-click layout that is more appropriate for a tablet. And there are a lot of images if you search on images, because it’s easy to scroll to see a bunch of photos.

Another new feature: Google announces Google Goggles with translation capability. So you can take a photo of a sign and get a translation of it on your mobile device.

Mike Cohen, Google’s manager of speech technology, starts talking about searching by voice. In the past year, mobile speech inputs have grown by 6X. Google gets two years of nonstop speech into its system every day. This is just the beginning now. What more is needed for a successful speech interface? One is accuracy–as close to perfect as we can possibly make it. The other is ubiquity, meaning it needs to be available to every device, platform, language, etc. Only then does it become a basic habit.

Progress toward these basic capabilities: First for accuracy: The higher the accuracy, the more repeat usage Google gets. We feed our speech recognition system massive amounts of data, so it learns–pronunciations, meanings, etc. Just for U.S. English, just to train phrases, we feed the system 230 billion words’ worth of data. That takes many CPU-decades of computing time.

Now for ubiquity: A little over a year ago, Google released voice input, so whenever the keypad on Android pops up onscreen, a microphone activates so you can speak if you want. Developers may not even realize their application thus is speech-enabled. Today, voice recognition is available in 23 languages.

Johanna Wright, director of product management for search, comes on to talk about what’s next. She tells a story from her own family, all of whom are trying to learn Spanish. Her husband asked what “squirrel” is in Spanish. She told him to take out his phone and say, “Translate squirrel into Spanish,” and the result, “ardilla,” was what she said it was. So… drum roll… Google today is announcing voice search on the desktop. So the demo guy utters several searches, like “Worcester, Mass.,” and up come the relevant results. So does “Wooster College,” pronounced of course the same way but spelled differently.

Sometimes, though, says Wright, you don’t have the words to describe what you’re looking for. That’s where Google Goggles comes in. So Google is also announcing… drum roll again… search by image. Googler Peter demonstrates. He drops an image into the search box and… results show up that actually show that place in other images. Santorini volcano, for instance. He also drops in an image of a logo, and it shows the organization it’s for (in this case, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority).

This will roll out globally in coming days at images.google.com. You can copy and paste an image URL, upload images from your desktop, and drag and drop images into the search box, and there will be Chrome and Firefox extensions for it.

Singhal is back onstage to talk about what’s next for Google Instant. It’s now available in 32 languages. And it will be available in coming weeks for Google image search.

Now he’s talking about the importance of speed. The Web is still slower than changing TV channels or flipping through pages of a magazine. Users on average take 9 seconds to enter a query, and 15 seconds to select a result, and five seconds to load a page. In between, network and serving time are almost negligible. Autocomplete speeds up entering a query, and Google Instant speeds up result selection.

It’s that page loading time that the third announcement of the day addresses; final drum roll for… Instant Pages. Alex Komoroske, product manager for Chrome, demo’s a comparison of a regular page and one with Instant Pages. Nothing’s precached. Click page with Instant Pages, and it loads instantly vs. (in this case, going to the Washington Post) 3.5 seconds.

Another example: Smithsonian Folklife Festival–again the site comes up instantly vs. a couple seconds on the regular page. Also the Spy Museum–zero seconds vs. almost 4 seconds.

So, Singhal says, the five seconds on average that it takes for a page to come up is now effectively gone. Google does this with Chrome’s pre-rendering technology. (So does this mean it works only on Chrome browsers? Would appear so for now.) This week it will be available in Chrome beta (and right now in the developer version if you dare).

Now to the Q&A:

Q: When will Instant Pages come to Firefox? Singhal: The code is out there, so won’t be long.

Q: Which ad results will be preloaded? Komoroske: Ads are not preloaded yet. Wright: Can imagine that will come soon.

Q: Pre-rendering has been around a long time, so what’s different here? Komoroske: Firefox does pre-fetching, but this goes further to get images, even Javascript. Singhal: Google’s relevance algorithms help decided what to pre-render, saving bandwidth by not pre-rendering everything.

Q: On local mobile search, can you get recommendations from friends? Huffman: Yes, the recommendations through Hotpot will be there.

Q: Voice search on Chrome only? Wright: Yes, for now.

Missed a few rather arcane questions to my mind, but I see Alan Eustace is onstage as well. He’s senior vice president of knowledge, a relatively new title whose meaning was not apparent until now. Newish CEO Larry Page, he says, wants Google to provide not just answers but knowledge.

Q: To what extent is search speed an advantage for Google products such as Chrome and Android? Singhal: Not just for Android, like Google Instant works on all browsers. Likewise, Google is opening up Instant Pages code so any browser could use it. Wright: In search, we’re not focused on speed for a [particular] platform, we’re just focused on speed.

Q: Face recognition used in image search? Singhal: No. If you use a face to search on and there’s the same or similar photo somewhere on the Web, you’ll probably find those.

Q: What about social? Why nothing new on that? Wright: Social is very important for search, but today we wanted to focus on these features and speed.

Q: What’s the impact on search volume? Singhal: Every time we shave even 50 milliseconds from a search, we see people search more.

Q: What do you need to know about a person to serve Instant Pages results? Singhal: Instant Pages works for anyone, not just those logged into Google.

And that’s it except for demos onsite here.

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One Response

  1. Do you suppose all these various features is taking away from good search results? Seems with the way the web is growing it can only be getting harder to get good relevant results based on real content.

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