For the moment, Google seems back to its old self again.
After a year of obsession with Google+, the search giant has returned to its roots with new search features that have nothing to do with social networking.
Google is now letting users sign up to see relevant Gmail messages alongside standard search results. For instance, if you search for “flight” in Google, you’ll see listings for flights you’ve booked as long as the booking confirmation was sent to Gmail. If you search for a contact, you’ll see that person’s information and recent e-mails right next to the main search results column. Certain other searches will show an expandable list of e-mail threads.
Google is also updating its search apps for iPhone and iPad to include Siri-like voice search that responds to natural phrases and speaks results back to you. These new features follow the recent launch of Google Knowledge Graph, a Wikipedia-like fact box that appears beside certain types of searches. As of Wednesday, Knowledge Graph is available in all English-speaking countries.
In a blog post, Google’s Senior Vice President of Search Amit Singhal says all these developments are part of building “the search engine of the future, one baby step at a time.” He brings up a recurring theme lately for Google: that search should be universal, like the all-knowing Computer in Star Trek.
And not once, in the entire blog post, does Singhal mention Google+, the social network that Google has been building up over the last year.
Google+ is a touchy subject for the company. It’s the most successful social network that Google has built, with 250 million users and 150 million active monthly users, but it has the reputation of being a ghost town.
Moreover, Google has taken heat from tech pundits (and Wil Wheaton) for forcing its social network into places where it’s not needed or wanted. When the company replaced the existing social mechanisms in Google Reader with Google+, users revolted. Engineers from Facebook and Twitter ridiculed Google for relying solely on Google+ for personalized search results instead of including relevant results from other networks.
Things even got a little ugly internally. One former Google employee alleged that Google+ became a “corporate mandate” and said any product that failed to be social was considered “a distraction.”
So it’s refreshing to see Google put Google+ aside, at least for now. Though I doubt that Google has lost interest in its social network, perhaps the company realized that it should stop going full throttle on Google+ and start paying more attention to search. Last year, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt admitted that the company faces a competitive threat from Apple’s Siri, which also resembles the stuff of science fiction. And although competition with Facebook is still a concern, its disappointing IPO may have helped take some of the pressure off Google+.
Or, if I’m speculating too wildly, maybe a search engine overhaul was always in the cards, and Google is just getting around to it now. Whatever the case, I’m glad that Google has cooled its jets on social networking, and is focusing more on what it does best: helping you find stuff.