"It's essentially the largest revision we've made in the past two or three years," Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder and president of technology, tells TIME. "It's really a significant undertaking." But with a 64% share of the search market, far ahead of rivals Yahoo! (22%) and MSN (9%), according to Hitwise, an online market research firm, why does the world's most visited site and most valuable brand need to toy with a core product that isn't broken?
"We always have to improve our search," Brin says. "It's not something we consider not doing." Besides being a new strategic and technological focus for Google, universal search is designed to make finding things online simpler yet more comprehensive. "When you search for something, you're likely to get the right pieces of information from the right places by going straight to the Google search box," Brin adds. In other words, by going beyond the standard web pages for text-only results, Google is working harder to get you the answers you're after. It's also a way to stay in front of the competition, which has been melding other types of data into search results though not to the extent that Google claims to be.
As the web continues to grow and more data is digitized, owning the fastest, most accurate and comprehensive navigational tool is essential to keeping users happy. It also makes sense for a company worth $146 billion and driven almost entirely by Internet search advertising revenue to continually seek out additional targeted ad opportunities around different types of search-related content. Universal search coupled with YouTube's vast video assets, purchased by Google last year for $1.65 billion, could mean video ads aren't far off. "It potentially means advertisers will have the ability to do graphical ads and video ads on Google's search results pages," says Danny Sullivan, a longtime search industry watcher and editor of the blog Search Engine Land. "The ability to get advertising on there has really been limited to textual ads, and now because they're putting graphics out there, it really opens up the possibilities."
Google's home page has been subtly redesigned to reflect the changes, too. Type a query into the search box and results automatically appear in whatever form and rank the search engine determines to be most relevant whether it's text, video or a map something Google contends its rivals don't do. For example, a search for "Beatles" reveals the best content types and presents them below the search box. In addition to web pages, Google shows us the most relevant results for the band found in "Music," "News," "Groups," "Blogs" and "Images," which appear in tabs. The familiar text-based results are still there, below the new tabs. The revamped search code's new video tab, for example, offers clips of the band's performances, plus a silly YouTube parody entitled "Indian Beatles: some kinda weird bollywood beatles clones."
Including video in search results, especially on the main home page, will probably be the most popular aspect of Google's big upgrade. Fans of Internet video can now fire up Google's powerful algorithms directly from the search box to find videos, including those not hosted by YouTube or Google Video. Results from independent video sites like Metacafe and dailymotion will appear as thumbnail images. From there, viewers can click on those to get to the host sites, while YouTube and Google-owned videos can be played directly from the main search results page.
Meanwhile, another helpful search feature, "Searches Related to..." now shows up more frequently at the end of each results page. This option helps users refine their searches by automatically offering up extra, contextually related topics for further exploration. In the Beatles example, "lyrics," "songs," "bios," and "history" are some of the categories suggested as click worthy.
Still, says Sullivan, it's important to realize these are just first steps. Universal search, introduced last week, is expected to improve over time. "It's not rolled out completely," he says. There is, however, the possibility that users will miss the old Google's clutter-free, text-only design. "It's possible," he noted. "To some degree this is kind of a gamble that they're making. But so far, I haven't heard a big huge screaming reaction from people."
So, will Google's re-tooling make us even more reliant on the world's master of search? "Our goal is not just to get people to spend more time on Google; it's for them to be able to accomplish more with Google," Brin says of the search phenomenon he helped create in 1996 as a grad school research project. "We actually want them to get more tasks done faster."