Google, Inching Closer to Real-Time Search

Marissa Mayer, VP, Search Products & User Experience and Associate Project Manager Nundu Janakiram
Marissa Mayer, VP, Search Products & User Experience and Associate Project Manager Nundu Janakiram

Google today unveiled a host of new tweaks to its search functionality, among them filters and visualization, spell-checking and preview tools that improve both the relevance and accuracy of results. But while it still isn’t offering a way to get real-time search results from across the web, it is getting closer.

The company’s push toward real-time search is emblematic of both the field’s increasing relevance, and of Google’s pattern of improving on ideas explored by innovative startups. Google’s shrewdly organized results, broad infrastructure, and creative user interface design give it an edge on emerging point solutions for real-time search, even if it doesn’t capture every bit of new content the instant it appears on the web.

To be sure, Google’s refinements will still give users new ways of finding current information they want, and screening out what they don’t. The newly launched Search Options feature permits filtering of results by time, including categories marked “Past Year,” “Past Week,” and “Past 24 Hours.” The final category is nebulously marked “Recent Results,” the vagueness of which points to both the strengths and weaknesses of the product.

What’s New In The Google Search Results

  • An improved “Did you mean?” function that provides alternate results for potential misspellings, grouped together by relevance.
  • Blended mobile search rankings that indicate whether a site is optimized for mobile devices, and integration of location-based functionality into the suggested searches that drop down while you’re typing.
  • New open standards that allow webmasters to tweak the teaser information provided on the search results page. These so-called “Rich Snippets” can include, say, starred product or user ratings from CNET or Yelp.
  • A searchable astronomy app for Android phones that takes advantage of GPS, accelerometer and compass sensors to deliver star maps oriented in the direction the user is looking at the phone.
  • The “Wonder Wheel,” which visualizes search results in clusters.
  • Google Squared, which delivers results in matrix form and allows them users to select and edit the fields along both axes of the spreadsheet.

According to Google Associate Project Manager Nundu Janakiram, the “Recent Results” filter unites both relevancy and up-to-the-minute currency of results in a new algorithm. Those searches may or may not, however, yield Twitter tweets, recently posted Flickr photos, blog posts and other user-generated content situated alongside news articles and other web pages. I asked him how recent a top-ranked post might be, and while he wouldn’t put a number on it, some sample searches produced results that were just a few minutes old. Janakiram said Google indexes new content “as fast as we can,” although there’s still an apparent, albeit brief, time lag. Most of the searches we attempted –- all with real-time events in mind –- resulted in a couple of fresh, relevant results from the previous 20 minutes or so, followed by other hits ranging from a day to a few months old.

Google’s Udi Manber, a VP of engineering, acknowledged in his opening remarks at the event held at the GooglePlex in Mountain View, Calif., that the company is “religious about speed,” and demonstrated its ability to deliver select real-time information, such as baseball scores, earthquake and flight data from feeds. But in the meantime, several other companies, including recently launched Scoopler and OneRiot are working on real-time web search engines that cull brand-new data streams from across the web and organize them chronologically. And Twitter’s real-time searchability is heralded as one of its most significant traits.

How relevant are search results that are just a few moments old? During breaking news events, real-time Twitter search has proven itself to be at least interesting, and often crucial. But real-time results can often be cluttered with irrelevant or needlessly repeated data, so that a broad search can be a waste of time. Google makes up for its lack of immediacy by improving the quality of the results it does yield, removing a lot of wasted information if not always giving the very most recent data. To my eyes, poorly filtered but near-instantaneous information is useful for some searches, while better-organized results that are a few minutes behind are superior for others. More bluntly, it might just depend what you’re looking for –- or even what else the word you’re searching for might mean.