by CLAIRE CAIN MILLER
Aug. 8, 2012
When Google imagines the future of Web search, it sees a search engine that understands human meaning and not just words, that can have a spoken conversation with computer users and that gives users results not just from the Web but also from their personal lives.
On Wednesday, Google showed a few steps it has taken toward making that all-knowing search engine a reality. The new tools, like voice search that seems to outdo Apple’s Siri, make Google more useful. But some, like one that incorporates personal Gmail messages in search results, could also unnerve privacy-concerned users.
Google's new tool is being offered to a million users who sign up at g.co/searchtrial.Karen Bleier/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesGoogle’s new tool is being offered to a million users who sign up at g.co/searchtrial.
Speaking at an event for reporters in San Francisco, Amit Singhal, senior vice president in charge of search at Google, called the announcements “baby steps in the direction of making search truly universal” and of building artificial intelligence into the search engine.
The Gmail tool, which Google is still testing with a limited number of users, shows results from Gmail if a user is signed in to his or her Google account. Search for Amazon, for instance, and in addition to links to the shopping Web site and information about the river, you could see the receipt from your recent Amazon.com order. Search “my flights” and Google will cull information about your forthcoming flight from your Gmail messages. Search for baby shower games and Google might show you a relevant but forgotten e-mail chain from last year between you and a friend.
Google says it wants to be able to see in your Gmail inbox that you have a reservation at a restaurant an hour away and alert you that the traffic is bad so you need to leave early, an extension of Google Now, which the company introduced in June. It also plans eventually to include personal information from other Google services like Docs and Drive.
Google is aware that the new tool could raise privacy concerns, a problem it has faced in the past when it tested new products, like Buzz, an ill-fated social network, only with Google employees. That is why the company is first offering it to a million users who sign up at g.co/searchtrial. It also emphasized that users can turn it off by moving a toggle at the top of the search results page or signing out of Gmail, and that all searches are encrypted.
“We have to do this very carefully, we know that,” Mr. Singhal said.
He added, “These are very useful things, services we need to bring to our users, and that’s the only way we can build the search of the future that we all want.”
Google also showed off voice search that seems to go far beyond what Apple’s Siri can do. These tools came to Android phones in June, and Google said it had submitted an app to Apple’s iTunes store that should be available in the next few days. In a demonstration, a Google executive verbally asked Google questions about the weather and maps, but also for more obscure information like a baseball player’s salary, a video on quantum physics and his personal flight information, and each time the search engine responded with the answer in a friendly voice.
Finally, Google showed the latest updates to the Knowledge Graph, which it introduced in May as a way to show real-world things and the connections between them. (Search “Twilight,” for instance, and on the right-hand side appears information about the movie and links to Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.) Starting Thursday, Google will go further by showing you a horizontal bar of relevant information on top (search “what to do in Paris” and see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre) and offering more intelligent prompts in auto-complete (search “Rio” and see “Rio de Janeiro” and “Rio, 2011 film.”)
Google also gave some astonishing statistics. There are 30 trillion URLs on the Web, and Google crawls 20 billion Web pages a day and does 100 billion searches a month.