Google Gets Back to Its Roots With New Search Update

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Your Google search experience is about to change.

No, don't worry, it's not another social integration. The latest update has nothing to do with Facebook and everything to do with Google's core strengths of organizing information so that you can find it faster.

Now, when you search certain things, say, Tom Cruise, a box will pop up in the right column of your search with structured data about the topic. Google can identify 500 million people, places, and things and can serve up a custom selection of data based on the nature of the noun.

Google knows that you are very likely to want to know certain things about Tom Cruise (e.g. his height) and other things about Bill Gates (his net worth) and other things about astronaut Don Pettit (which Shuttle missions he flew).

How good is Google at both guessing what you want to know and having that information in its databases? In some cases, the company is really good. "Based on the other things that people are looking for when they are looking for Tom Cruise, our knowledge graph is going to show you 39 percent of the answers to the next thing you might be looking for," said Johanna Wright, director of product management for The Google Knowledge Graph, which is what the company is calling this new feature.

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To me, this update is the epitome of what Google does best. The graph makes the process of Googling something faster, easier, and better. The corporate imperative to keep people searching on Google in the face of renewed competition matches up very nicely with consumers' desires for the best, fastest search experience. That hasn't always been the case with the company's social search integration, so this update feels so refreshing. It's like a friend in the midst of a midlife crisis returning the Porsche and embracing a trusty new four-door.

You may not have Google Knowledge Graph yet, but you will soon. The company is rolling it out this week, so get ready to see your right column transformed.

There are three other things worth mentioning about the change. First, Wright told me that Google "expect[s] there will be little to no significant impact on ads" because most of the graphs are showing up on long tail topics on which marketers aren't buying ads.  When a graph does appear on a page that has advertisements, you'll see a compressed card that will allow plenty of room for the moneymakers.

Second, this takes us a step closer to Google as a computational engine, something that can do more than find and rank which pages you'd like to see (or show you the weather for your area). Google's been collecting data and data and data for years; now they can start using it to do some very powerful things.

Third, nearly every entry begins with a Wikipedia snippet. It's long been clear that Google's algorithms love Wikipedia, now we can see how valuable the encyclopedia's structured data is to Google's long-term ambitions.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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