With a whopping 97 per cent market share in India according to StatCounter data, Google Search looms ahead of others like Yahoo Search (one per cent share) and Microsoft’s Bing (less than one per cent share) by a huge margin. So, how Google’s search engine manages to stay at the top of its game? Last year, Google introduced 500 changes to its search engine technology and tested over 50,000 changes in real time while billions of users were searching for their queries. Ben Gomes, engineer at Google who leads the company's engineering efforts on search features says, “It’s always a work in progress.”
Gomes has been with Google for more than 11 years and has worked in the development of nearly all aspects of the Google search service ranging from crawling and indexing to ranking and and new feature design, including features such as Google Instant and Instant Previews. “When I was a new employee at Google (a decade back), we took about a month to index about 50 million pages. Today, the same amount happens in less than a minute. That’s how evolved the systems are and it continues to get better each day,” says Gomes.
Google estimates there have been 450 billion unique queries searched on Google since 2003. While Google betters its online search engine, Gomes has his focus on the mobile platform, which he believes is critical to the company’s success in markets like India where users are logging on to the internet for the first time on their mobile devices.
“I believe both voice search and image search along with other search innovations rooted in the mobile experience, will emerge steadily in 2012. We are making sure that mobile search experience is as relevant as Google desktop search is,” he points.
With mobile handsets, Google Search gets a legs up because it can serve most relevant results using user’s location information.
“Location is an important signal we use to surface content from the web. Most common searches from mobile today are for tickets, places to eat etc. When we have the location, we can serve user not only the data he searched but relevant stuff like directions to the place or reviews of the restaurant etc,” explains Gomes. Also bullish about mobile voice search, where users speak their query instead of typing, Google is making sure that its search engine can understand Indian dictions.
“It’s not an easy task to break down the accents and pronunciations symantically into searchable queries but we are slowly working towards getting this feature right as we believe mobile users will begin to demand this feature on their smartphones,” underlines Gomes. Voice Search is already a feature of Google Search app for iPhone, BlackBerry, and Nokia S60 V3 phones.
Where other search engines have failed, social networks like Facebook and Twitter have emerged to pose a threat to Google because they don’t allow Google’s search engine to log most of the photos, links and observations cascading through their pages. Although Twitter did give Google access to the tweets as part of a 2009 licensing agreement, but that deal has long expired.
That preempted Google to launch, ‘Search, plus your World’ which in its search results includes information culled from the user’s Google Plus network.
For instance, a query about the Indian premier League matches might include links and comments made about teams by other people in one of the social circles on the user’s Plus account. And although Google Plus has grown to nearly 100 million users, analysts are still trying to determine how active and engaged they actually are. Google’s social search, believes Gomes, continues to evolve.
“Today our search technology is pretty amazing at finding that one needle in a haystack of billions of webpages, images, videos, news and much more. When you search about a movie or a restaurant, social search will highlight names of places, images, reviews of restaurants visited, which is relevant to user.”
Meanwhile, Microsoft’s Bing search engine has recently been updated to include the user comments, likes and activities posted on popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Bing's new interface, which is expected to move from a private to a public beta test period soon, offers users a sidebar that focuses on people in the user's social networks and their opinions and search queries.
Facebook has long cooperated with Bing, partly because Microsoft bought a 1.6 per cent stake in the company in 2007. Microsoft has also launched ‘Snapshot,’ which provides instant answers to queries about topics like restaurant reservations, hotel reviews, maps and movie trailers. Microsoft is also reportedly testing a search history functionality, which will let users access and build off previous Bing searches.