Google is trying to blow up how you think about searching. To say that competition in a world where TikTok and Instagram are changing the way the internet works is changing would be overkill… but not great. Google now exists on a more visual, more interactive web where users want to be surprised and delighted as often as they just want their questions answered. Why a search engine in such a world? The Google you’ll see tomorrow may not be completely different, but the change is already starting.
At the annual Search On event today, Google introduced people to several new ways to search the Internet. Most of them continue the trend of the last few years Google: trying to find more natural and more visual ways to enter searches and get results. You can now ask Google a question by taking a picture or going to your phone’s microphone, rather than trying to type the perfect set of keywords into the search bar. And Google is looking for more ways to present information that you might be interested in, without even asking.
This is a really interesting thought experiment: what would the Google equivalent of the TikTok website look like to you? The Google search team doesn’t know exactly, but they are working on it. And at least for now, it looks like the answer will start popping up on the home page of the Google iOS app. This is where many new Google features start to appear, and many customers are already interacting with Google in new ways.
In interviews prior to the event, Google executives repeatedly said that search was undergoing a complete transformation. For two decades, “the rules of the game are more or less:” Dear human, if you follow the rules and write your inquiries properly, we will give you amazing answers to your needs, “says Prabhakar Raghavan, Google’s vice president of search. “But thanks to the amazing – and frankly unprecedented – advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision, things are turning around.”
These advances in artificial intelligence and computer vision are the driving force behind Google Lens and the new Multisearch feature that allows you to search with an image and then modify it with text. (Google always explains it with a dress – take a picture of a green dress you like, type “purple” and go racing). The multi-search engine has been available for several months and is currently being implemented all over the world. The classic Google link list is also starting to change to be replaced in some contexts with a mosaic of images and informational widgets. (Sometimes links are still the best answer, Google thinks, but not always. Not even usually.) Google is also expanding its Immersive View in Maps, which gives you a visual cruising view of a place before you actually go there. Over time, Google’s inputs and outputs become more and more multi-sensory.
At the root of these adverts is a major shift in Google Search. The rules of the game Raghavan describes have always been based on the assumption that there is one right answer somewhere – and all you had to do to get it was ask Google the exact right question. But increasingly, Google is embracing the idea that search is not a question-and-answer system. It is a system of exploring, discovering, trying to know things for which there are no obvious answers. This changes both what users want from Google and the responsibility Google has for what it chooses to give them.
Liz Reid, the vice president who oversees all of Google’s search products, says people have been using Google in a less direct way for some time. Yes, of course, most people still come by to answer a question or find a link; words like “Facebook” and “Weather” are the most popular search terms. Others take a longer but more focused journey – they want to buy a bike or learn about the history of the onion. “And then sometimes people wander,” says Reid.
Wanderers come to Google with a much less direct intention. They heard a term they did not know; they talked with a friend about a place that sounds interesting; they want to know more about Adele. These are the people for whom TikTok is a surprisingly useful search engine, the young internet users Raghavan talks about experience the Internet in a more native visual way. Google’s own search engines – the Google app feed, the one on the side of the Android home screen, Google News, and more – are already hugely popular, and Google is trying to bring some of the same energy to its most important product.
One way that comes up in practice is a new way of thinking about autocomplete. In the Reid demo, the user types “Best” and a few suggestions pop up right below, with what Google calls “chips”: buttons you can touch that add something to your search results. “Best” offers “Buy”, “Movies”, “Restaurants” and a few more. Keep reading, and Mexico’s Best Cities will propose “Retirement,” “For Expatriates,” and more. In some cases, as Reid says, the purpose of the tokens is to help you refine your search to get the result. In others, it may broaden the search or suggest something helpful. In both cases, Google’s artificial intelligence allows you to switch from syntactic search by simply predicting the word you are going to type based on the last one, to semantic, actually understanding the content and context of the search.
After landing on the (also increasingly visual) results page, Google is also moving away from a ranked link list to (hopefully) a broadening tool. “If you think about our ranking, conceptually,” says Reid, “it gets worse as you scroll.” Tons of links were helpful when Google didn’t reliably deliver the best stuff to the top. Reid says Google is good at it. When scrolling, “probably what you want isn’t a slightly inferior version of the same, but actually something slightly different.” In the future, there may be a grouping of similar search results on the same topic or on adjacent topics at the bottom of the search results page.
Standard Google search behavior has been the same for two decades: type in a query, scroll through the results, and if you don’t like what you see, try a different query
The standard behavior of Google Search has been the same for two decades: type in a query, scroll through the results, and if you don’t like what you see, try a different query. The only tool available was a string of keywords. Raghavan says this is exactly backward: “It’s sad when our users blame themselves,” he says. “If you didn’t get what you want, we have a problem, we should fix it.”
All of this gives Google even more control over what you see in search results. It has long raised questions about the bias of Google’s algorithms and its ever-cryptic ranking system, but also of Google’s own business model. The company has spent the past years constantly keeping more results for itself, redirecting users to other Google products or simply putting the answer in the results. And now the company is starting to make much more proactive decisions about what you see and when. It’s not just offering related searches – it guides you to new topics and places large, touchable buttons right below the search box telling you exactly where to go. The Google search box used to be a blank, white page – known as the most valuable real estate on the web – and now sends signals from virtually every pixel.
When it comes to questions about disinformation and problematic content on the Internet, Raghavan is determined that these matters are for the most part not a Google business. “We promise universal access to information,” he says, “which means if it’s on the Internet, as long as it’s not prohibited by law or some really restrictive policy, yes, we’ll show it to you.” He often talks about questions with multiple opinions but has no set answer, and says that Google’s job is to reveal useful things but ultimately let users decide. The phrase “authoritative information” is a favorite phrase for him and Google in general.
And in some cases where people disagree, but there is a clear truth about this? He admits it’s difficult. “If you ask me, ‘Were the ballot boxes stolen in Arizona?’ I can’t say yes or no because the Arizona ballot boxes are not in our indexes. Ultimately, it seems to be saying that Google only knows what it knows, and all it can do is not to pretend otherwise. This has been a challenge for Google in the past – the company has occasionally placed incorrect information in the answer boxes at the top of the page or placed misinformation high in the results – and Raghavan says work is always on-going.
There is also a trick question about the user interface. Google’s original “10 Blue Links” results were imperfect but extremely dense information; converting them to a full-screen image or video link is both richer and less scannable. And as Google shows you information more boldly before you even ask for it, it will also need to better explain what you see and why, all without overloading the page. “It’s definitely a challenge,” says Reid. “How do you make it simple enough but also obvious enough?” The same goes for the search box: “Blanks can be incredibly amplifying and simplifying,” he says, “and in other cases, they might say,” What should I do with this field? ” In the search box on the other hand, the goal is basically to let everyone do whatever it takes and trust Google to solve it. The little bit of results is more complex and ultimately even more on Google’s shoulders to get it correct.
Many of these projects are still in the exploration and testing phase, says Reid, and she is curious to see what many of them will turn into. Google is moving slowly, especially when it comes to rethinking its core business. However, she is convinced that Google could be more than just a responsive answering machine.
He cites woodworking as an example: If Google knows you have an interest in woodworking as a hobby, how can it make this easier? Answering questions yes, but also showing you new tools you didn’t know about, cool YouTubers you’ve never heard of, places to learn new skills and much more. You won’t get it all with even the most skilfully crafted query, and 10 blue links won’t get you there either. Google is still the leading search engine in the world, but if it wants to take over TikTok and Instagram and remain a global portal of culture and information, there will be a lot more to it.