Googleâ€™s Quest for Universal Search Comes with Risk
By the time you read this, Google will probably have introduced yet another refinement to its ubiquitous search engine, or maybe it will announce another acquisition.
In the official company blog on August 8, Amit Singhal, SVP of Google Search, wrote, â€œLarry Page once described the perfect search engine as understanding exactly what you mean and giving you back exactly what you want.â€ He then mentioned several new tools that, taken in combination, suggest Google continues to move the bar to new heights in search.
For example, Googleâ€™s â€œKnowledge Graph,â€ a database of more than 500 million real-world people, will now be extended outside the U.S. to every English-speaking country in the world. It will be combined â€œwith the collective wisdom of the webâ€ to offer â€œlists and collectionsâ€ that will target a userâ€™s subjective searches.
Google has also improved its voice search capability, which, it says, will â€œsoon be availableâ€ on the iPhone and iPad (itâ€™salready available on the Android platform). At first glance, Voice Search is clearly aimed at Appleâ€™s Siri; a Google video demonstrates what appears to be a superior product.
Gmail Search Could Raise Privacy Concerns
Imagine if Googleâ€™s deep search capability was applied to Gmail. That, too, was part of Googleâ€™s announcement:
â€œSometimes the best answer to your question isnâ€™t available on the public web â€“ it may be contained somewhere else, such as in your email. We think you shouldnâ€™t have to be your own mini-search engine to find the most useful information â€“ it should just work. A search is a search, and we want our results to be truly universal.â€
Google offered the example of a Gmail user who might be â€œplanning a biking trip to Tahoe:â€
â€œâ€¦you might see relevant emails from friends about the best bike trails, or great places to eat on the right hand side of the results page. If it looks relevant you can then expand the box to read the emails.â€
To some Gmail users, this is the best possible search scenario; others, however, could see it as an invasion of privacy. After all, Google would be searching the userâ€™s private Gmail account.
Google has faced privacy concerns in the past and seems to be treading more lightly here. â€œWe have to do this very carefully, we know that,â€ Amit Singhal said in a meeting with reporters. Instead of rolling out the service, Google is offering it on limited trial basis to users who â€œopt in.â€ According to The New York Times, the company â€œalso 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.â€
Acquisition of Frommerâ€™s Raises More Questions
Unrelated to Googleâ€™s search enhancements was the August 13 announcement that the company planned to acquire Frommerâ€™s. A well-respected brand known for its printed travel guides, Frommerâ€™s will significantly add to Googleâ€™s travel portfolio; last year the company bought restaurant review service Zagat and flight search technology company ITA Software.
Why is Google so interested in travel? Itâ€™s not only a rich area for search, it also fits in nicely with the local search market because of establishments like restaurants and hotels. Google is anxious to bolster its local search and review offerings to better compete with services like Yelp, which it failed to acquire. The company is already using Zagat information in local searches.
But the Frommerâ€™s acquisition raises more questions. For one thing, doesnâ€™t it put Google squarely in competition with traditional publishers? And more significantly, by entering the content business, isnâ€™t Google undermining its impartiality as a search provider? As Claire Cain Miller writes in The New York Timesâ€™ Media Decoder, â€œGoogle has said repeatedly that it does not favor its own services in producing search results, but the issue is one of the central ones being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission in an antitrust review of Google.â€
Final Destination: Universal Search
Clearly, Googleâ€™s ultimate goal is to be the ultimate universal search engine â€“ for everything, for everyone, on all devices. As I mentioned in my post about mobile search, Google has already gained early domination in that market, leaving Bing and Yahoo in the dust. Much as it has done with Voice Search and Appleâ€™s iPhone, Google introduced a handwriting capability (â€œHandwriteâ€) to compete directly with Microsoftâ€™s forthcoming Windows 8 phone.
While some of Googleâ€™s moves may appear to be risky, the company seems to know exactly what it wants to do: Build the search engine of the future sooner rather than later.