Google Talks Up Big Search Changes

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Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Google is promising to make some big changes to its search engine over the next few months, with more emphasis on providing facts and direct answers instead of just a series of links.

That’s how the Wall Street Journal tells it anyway, after speaking with top Google search executive Amit Singhai and several unnamed sources. Although Google’s existing keyword search system isn’t going away, the company plans to supplement those results with its own knowledge database. A process called “semantic search” will try to better interpret the meanings of words, such as the difference between “Apple” the company and “apple” the fruit, and provide more answers on its own.

(MORE: Search, Plus Your World: Google’s Risky Gambit)

As an example of what Google wants to do, a search for “Lake Tahoe” might spit back some key attributes about the lake on top of the traditional “10 blue links,” while a search for “What are the 10 largest lakes in California” would attempt to answer that question directly within the search results. A search for Ernest Hemingway might return a list of books by the author, which would presumably allow Google to promote its own Google Bookstore.

The goal, one source told the Journal, is to convince users to spend more time on Google, creating a bigger opportunity to advertise. One source said the changes could affect 10% to 20% of all search results.

Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, is skeptical of the Journal‘s report, as well as a similar story by Mashable that claimed Google’s “Knowledge Graph Could Change Search Forever.” In a blog post, Sullivan notes that Google already provides direct answers for lots of topics, including UPS and FedEx tracking reports, flight status updates, math problems, movie information, stocks, weather and sports scores. In 2010, Google wrote a blog postexplaining how its search engine tries to understand the meaning of words — essentially what semantic search intends to do.

“My take is that Google’s pushing these technologies for some good PR, and they are in turn being blown up out of proportion to what will really happen,” Sullivan wrote. Google has taken some heat lately for its laser-focus on Google+, the company’s answer to Facebook. Meanwhile, Apple’s Siri virtual assistant has been seen by some tech pundits as a threat to Google, because of its ability to provide direct answers. Sullivan guesses that Google PR is trying to talk up its core search product in light of those developments, and that the Journal and Mashable spun the story into something bigger than it should be.

I’m inclined to agree with Sullivan, especially because Google hasn’t actually announced anything. The company may be working on some gradual improvements to search, but when Google makes a change that affects a large percentage of search results, there’s usually an explanatory blog post to go with it, so users and Webmasters know exactly what to expect. That hasn’t happened yet, so it seems the 10 blue links have a long future ahead of them.

MORE: Former Googler Rips Company for ‘Corporate-Mandated Focus’ on Google+