Even a giant like Google can’t afford to take it easy, so Google Labs is constantly looking to develop the next revolution in search. With 25 tools launched in beta last year, we look at which could be big in 2010
- Google Labs launched 25 innovations in 2009, seven of which were mobile
- Google Squared has the potential to outwit product comparison sites by being more comprehensive and allowing users to tailor the information
- Social Search and Buzz show Google’s seriousness about getting into social media
- The increasing amount of rich media online has driven the launch of Google Swirl, the number one Labs product, and Google Goggles
Google Labs launched a slew of search innovations in 2009. These ranged from Listen, which lets users search podcasts and web audio, to the News Timeline, which organises reports on a certain topic chronologically. Products are released within Google Labs while they’re still in development and early feedback helps engineers to refine the product and decide whether it has legs. Aparna Chennapragada, product manager at Google, says it’s also a way for users to get a sneak preview of creations which are “rough around the edges but also potentially game-changing”. But which of the innovations from Google Labs look most likely to change the game for search in 2010?
For hotel chain Hilton, Google Squared stands out. This search tool collects facts from the web and presents them in a table, allowing users to compare items. For example, if searching for a mountain bike, Google Squared will tabulate the results, with columns detailing price, colour and so on. Users can add columns themselves, such as brake type, and Google will endeavour to locate this information for each listed product.
“It has huge ramifications for acquisition as well as branding,” says Karthik Manick, director of demand generation at Hilton. “It may be geeky now but it’ll be Google’s answer to the various aggregators that have crowded the marketplace, so it could have a huge impact for travel or finance companies. Including characteristics like customer ratings and product features within search is definitely a game-changer. The way we order, label and arrange information will impact brand perceptions, so this tabulated hierarchy will have an effect.”
It means Google could outwit popular product comparison sites, as well as shortening the user journey. Manick cites research by Google UK and ComScore which found that users visit an average of 22 websites before making a travel purchase. Squared could help bring suppliers and users together faster, he says.
“The current options on search across all engines limit what a hotel can portray. Squared would break through the clutter for us.”
Ken Punter, digital media manager at international children’s charity World Vision, also cites Google Squared as a potential opportunity. In the UK the charity has low brand awareness, despite being the largest privately funded international aid agency globally. It works with search agency iCrossing and has increased its search budget and resources in the last 12 months. “While Squared works most easily with products rather than services, it’s still interesting,” says Punter.
“What I want to be able to do is put our competitors into the frame and lay out all the things we do. For me it’s about appearing against charities like Oxfam and Save the Children. It could be about influencing donors but it could also be about increasing brand awareness.”
Exactly how brands capitalise on an innovation like Squared will depend on how the search giant decides to monetise it. Manick asks, “Will it be a natural search product or more like AdWords? How much control will a brand have and how much data can be pushed across?”
Another trend reflected in its recent creations is the hunger for social media. Dave Wilding, senior SEO analyst at Epiphany Solutions, says, “If Google is to continue to be seen as a force on the web, it needs to engage with the social arena, otherwise it’ll fall behind.” Search itself has come a long way since websites achieved high ranking through intelligent linking. Now people’s links to each other are changing the face of search. “People using Facebook and Twitter do searches from within those, and if Google isn’t offering the same services and useful tools then people will move away from it,” says Wilding.
In October Google Labs launched Social Search to help users find relevant content from their broader social circle - taking personalisation one step further. Once users sign into their Google account, search results from, say, their Facebook and Twitter contacts will appear first.
Chris Norton, head of SEO at integrated marketing company Amaze, which is retained by Dyson, Lexus and Ofcom for search consultancy, says this move, coupled with Google’s recent acquisition of Aardvark (which asks social communities to provide answers to questions), shows its desire to tackle competition from social media. “People are starting to use the combined knowledge of their social media communities to answer questions they might have otherwise sought the answers to on Google. This obviously concerns Google,” he says.
Social search innovations like this - along with Google Buzz, which allows Gmail users to post status updates, share content and comment on friends’ posts - are an important step for marketers, says Tanya Goodin, CEO of natural search agency Tamar. “Notwithstanding the concerns around privacy, these developments have at a stroke expanded the search universe exponentially and we have to ensure brands understand the seismic change,” she says. “This is a change that will only develop over time as Google looks to provide users with ever more relevant and current information.”
It means brands need to consider how they can future-proof their sites as search evolves. “They need to think about what they can do to keep people on the site, have community engagement and enable interaction with major platforms like Facebook and Twitter,” says Wilding.
Another clear driver for Google Labs’ innovations is the increasing use of rich media. Chennapragada says both Google Swirl, which clusters images together in a similar way to Google’s text-based Wonder Wheel, and Google Goggles (see box below), are driven by two fundamental insights. “One is that people are uploading videos and photos, so we need to build our tools so they process visual information. The second is that we need to mould the tools to fit the user, not the user to fit the tools.” She gives the example that humans find it much easier to recognise images they’ve seen than to recall and describe them using words. “We’re trying to exploit human efficiency in the tools we build,” she says.
Wilding thinks such an innovation provides a glimpse of the future. “At the moment Google is almost like a dumb machine: when you type in a word it just tries to pattern match it. With Swirl there’s more going on. Google is giving meaningful context to the content. If Web 2.0 is social media, Web 3.0 will be the semantic web and context, which will allow for much more intelligent search.”
Chennapragada says Swirl is the number-one application in Google Labs, and while feedback since its launch in November has been positive, user comment is already being taken on board. “It’s a good validation of the direction we’re headed, but based on user feedback we’re looking at visual similarities for these images,” she says. “In many cases users want us to see if we can also help them organise images by semantic similarities, so they can group together pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge taken at the same event, for example.”
Visual search is certainly a fertile area. Doug Platts, head of natural search at iCrossing, says, “To build brand awareness you need to think about watermarking your brand onto the image or at least putting your logo in the corner. With the way Swirl works there’s more opportunity for multiple images from a brand to be visible.”
The growth in rich media will force brands to sit up and take notice of the shifting landscape, putting greater pressure on companies to optimise their position in natural search results. “We used to think being ranked in the top five was okay as you’d be above the fold. But now it’s about being number one because there’s so much information appearing that it will push all the other results down,” says World Vision’s Punter.
Google Labs might be all about experimenting but its activity offers an insight into the way search is likely to evolve, and how agile brands need to be.
Google Goggles: Search what you see
Launched by Google Labs in December 2009, Goggles was born of what product manager Aparna Chennapragada describes as “human efficiency” - the ability to recognise objects faster by sight than if they’re described. Goggles taps into this, along with the growing sophistication of mobile devices, to offer a search facility based on mobile photos. For example, take a picture of the Eiffel Tower and related search results will appear.
“Mobile devices are an extension of our eyes and they should be our visual guide. It’s definitely one of the inspirations for us to implement Goggles in the mobile space,” says Chennapragada.
Google Goggles points to the growing importance of mobile for the search giant and has clear commercial potential. For example, users who have the app installed can take a picture of a book and receive instant search results. It can take a picture of a product’s barcode and search to find the best prices. It also works with a phone’s GPS and compass functions to provide an augmented reality function, overlaying information on local businesses and landmarks on the screen.
But few see Goggles as heralding the end of text-based search. “The search mode should really adapt to the user’s specific context and event,” says Chennapragada. “If you’re at a desktop PC and are better served by a keyword search, we should absolutely be offering you tools that help you do that.”