Google Goes Searchology, Offers Options, Clusters, and More

I was working this afternoon so I was not able to sit in on the Searchology webcast. I followed along a bit on Twitter, but what I really wanted to do was go home, get on the computer, check out the summaries from Google and Mr. Cutts, then do some test driving. So I did and so I am.

Check out the entry at the official Google blog that covered today’s Searchology event. I know this is the second one, but it feels strange to have Google announcing so many different things at once. Usually things get released in dribs and drabs. And it’s not even a holiday. Do I think that Google is announcing this as a bid for attention in the wake of all the Wolfram|Alpha buzz? No. Do I think they’re announcing it to let the world know there’s more to Google than possible antitrust concerns? No. Do I think Google’s trying to preempt Microsoft’s launch of Kumo? No.

But I do think there might be a little bit of “all of the above.” Google has been getting talked about a lot lately in a nebulous way: is it going to buy Twitter, will it be killed by Wolfram|Alpha, should it be investigated by the Justice Department. Searchology is a great response: Google is still a search engine, it is not dead, and it’s offering other options besides what Twitter has.

Let’s start with the new Search Options. When you do a search now, you’re going to see a new “Show Options” link at the top of the search results. If you click on that, you’ll get a sidebar that looks rather similar to what you get when you do a Google News search (except for the bottom options — more about those in a few paragraphs.)

Google's New Search Options
Google's New Search Options
First you’ll see that you can divide your results by type — videos, forums, and reviews. Videos and forums would be pretty easy to delineate, of course, but I was skeptical about reviews. After playing with it, though, I was satisfied that you get lots of actual review pages and very little, if any, garbage. Even keywords that don’t lend themselves easily to reviews (“Strawberry Shortcake”, “Giraffe”) found mostly reviews (the strawberry shortcake one did find a couple of recipes but not enough that it disrupted the results.)

The second set of options allows you to search by how recent the Web pages are. There are “recent” pages, then 24 hours, a week, and a year. I’m a bit baffled by the idea of recent, though; I did a search for “rhesus monkey” and looked for “recent” results. I got a count of “about 867,000” at this writing. Then I searched for the past 24 hours and got a result count of “about 95,800.” Um, what? So I’m not really sure what recent means. In the meantime, while I’m glad that this option has been pulled to the front (instead of being relegated to advanced search, result URL fiddling, or nerds like me playing with Julian dates) I’m a bit disappointed by the implementation. In other words, “AW, C’MON GOOGLE! HOW ABOUT A CUSTOM DATE RANGE FORM?” On the other hand, once you do restrict your results to a specified time period you can sort them by DATE instead of relevance, which is MOST EXCELLENT.

(An aside: while it’s great that Google can restrict results to the last 24 hours and then sort them by date, this does not make Google search a substitute for Twitter. It’s complementary. You cannot compare a pool of Web pages recently indexed with a pool of 140-character text messages recently posted. The two sets of data have completely different applications and utilities, especially considering the very different ways you can search them. Twitter is not a Google-killer, nor is Google a Twitter-killer. They work well TOGETHER. End of aside.)

So you can restrict by content type, you can restrict by date, and then you can open up what’s been shown on the results page. You can choose to show thumbnails of images that came from the pages along with the search results, OR you can choose to show larger snippets of the Web pages in addition to the three or so lines you normally get. Note that I found some of these search options didn’t play well together; when I tried to look at images from pages added in the last 24 hours, I didn’t get any search results with thumbnails. All this is is fairly standard; Google has had different search properties and even the ability to search by date for a long time now. The newer stuff is right at the very bottom of the search engine sidebar.

Google's related searches for bonobo
Google's related searches for bonobo

Related Searches will give you a set of related searches at the top of the search results that you can use to explore further. And as you can see from the screenshot these related searches can cover a fairly broad range. When you click on a Related Searches link, you’ll get a “More like this” link next to what you picked. This’ll give you another, narrower, set of related search results.

The Wonder Wheel is a more traditional way of showing clustered searches, ala — well, I was going to say ala Mooter, but Mooter appears to be dead, or at least not showing clusters anymore. (For a clustering search engine I’ve always used Clusty, anyway.)

Google's Wonder Wheel
Google's Wonder Wheel
The Wonder Wheel gives you a group of related searches in a wheel. Click on a search in the wheel and you go to another wheel while the results themselves (on the far right) refresh. From my experiment I couldn’t get more than a couple of wheels to show on the screen at a time, which is too bad as it’s fun to look at several groups of related searches at a time and see if you can spot any patterns. Anyway, I find navigating clusters visually a little easier than via a text list. Furthermore, I looked at related searches from Google just last March and I didn’t like them; I didn’t think they were anything special. I was taken aback at how good these related searches were. You’ll still get the occasional odd term, but these related searches were numerous and very specific.

Finally, at the VERY bottom of the page, you’ll see an option to see a Timeline of search results. This search doesn’t give you a timeline of when pages were indexed; instead, it attempts to parse pages, pull out relevant dates, and give you a timeline so you can browse your search results by dates mentioned in the Web pages. So if you search for bonobos and look at the 1928 part of the timeline, you’ll ideally get a Web page that has a 1928 historical fact about bonobos.

As you can see from the screenshot below, this search attempts to give you a timeline of relevant information from 1920 to 2009. If you click on a decade, you’ll get another timeline just for that decade so you can narrow down your search results to a particular year. Since making a timeline like this has got to be tough, I did not have much hope for getting good results, but you know, the timelines turned out pretty well. I got limited goofiness (for a “strawberry shortcake” search) but the timelines were better than I expected.

Google organizing search results into "timelines"

All these options are things you can use RIGHT NOW. But Google also announced something called “Google Squared”. The official blog post describes it this way: “Google Squared doesn’t find webpages about your topic — instead, it automatically fetches and organizes facts from across the Internet.” This opens up any number of questions — a fact as determined by who? Delimited by what? Obtained from where? Weighed how? — but unfortunately Matt Cutts has only a few more details about this feature. It’ll launch in Google Labs later this month; I think I’ll have to play with it to understand it.

Many of the now-available options were things that Google previously offered one way or another. But I’m heartened and impressed about how they’ve been put together here; so much so it increases my interest in Google Squared. The buzz around Wolfram and Microsoft makes me think that the competitive juices might be ramping up a bit again. I can’t wait to watch what happens.