Google Search Changes In A Nutshell: Please Stop Talking Trash About SPYW, We Have Semantic Search!

Google will be rolling out major updates to its Google Search engine in the coming months, if an article in today’s WSJ is to be believed. According to statements from Amit Singhal, SVP of Search at Google, the changes primarily involve the introduction of semantic search capabilities and instant answers – yes, two things that Microsoft is already doing (and has been doing for some time) with Bing.

However, to some extent, Google has been doing these things, too. Also, none of this is fresh news. So what’s going on here?

To get both sides of the story, you’ll have to also read Danny Sullivan’s takedown of the WSJ article over on Search Engine Land, where he also points out that this news is not actually new news. Stories about Google’s changes have been making the rounds for weeks now.

To sum up, Sullivan basically says that the WSJ missed an opportunity to clarify what’s actually new, versus which technology, already in action, is simply being expanded upon or improved and by how much. That’s a fair criticism, but then again, when you think of the audience the paper has to address, minutiae like this has to be dumbed down a bit, and explained in lengthy, layman’s terms to a more mainstream audience. An audience for whom product names like “Google OneBox,” “Google Squared,” “Freebase,” and “Metaweb” don’t roll off their tongues as they do for him.

Case in point: a good portion of the WSJ piece has to explain what semantic search even is and examples of how it would work. I think the majority of the TechCrunch audience has a better grip on the technology, but to put it simply for those who don’t: it’s a system that would identify the people, places and things being referenced within webpages and use that understanding to better rank them. In short, semantic technology makes search smarter.

But let’s not get carried away. The semantic search engine Powerset, acquired by Microsoft in 2008, was later used to augment Bing’s search capabilities. And here it is 2012, and we all use Bing now, right? Hmm? No, as Sullivan rightly points out semantic technology alone doesn’t make one engine “significantly better” than another.

According to the original article, semantic search won’t replace keyword-based search, it will be used alongside it. So where’s the big change? What’s going on?

The key bit to understanding the whole thing is the part where the article mentions that Google’s Metaweb team (a semantic search company called Metaweb was acquired by Google in 2010) has expanded its index to 200 million entities, up from the 50 million it had back in 2010. Not to downplay that news – good job guys! – but 200 million entities != entire web.

And semanticizing (yes, I just verbed it) 200 million entities isn’t going to radically change Google as we know it. It’s merely a progress report on the state of semantic search. Carry on.

[In other news, it also sounds like Google will be doing more of those direct answers things, where queries with a simple answer (e.g., flight times, package tracking, weather, etc.) will be displayed at the top of results in a very Bing-like fashion.]

Bottom line here with the big, major, OMG GOOGLE SEARCH IS CHANGING news: Google Search is always changing. The company is constantly tweaking the signals it uses to rank webpages across the Internet. Sometimes, enough of these signals are tweaked in a short enough period of time that Google gives the rollout of the new algorithms a name, like Google Panda, for example.

But what’s going on here with semantic search is a carefully timed push to put some other news out there for you to read about besides Google “Search Plus Your World,” the truly radical revamp to Google Search that incorporates Google+ search results – even favoring them – over its list of blue links, previously core to the Google search experience.

There has been a lot of pushback from the tech community over the changes, the most recent example of which came from former Google+ engineering director James Whittaker who became so disillusioned with Google’s cultural shift that he jumped ship and headed back to…Microsoft. (Yeah, them).

In case you missed it, the damning quote from Whittaker, shortened:

Officially, Google declared that “sharing is broken on the web” and nothing but the full force of our collective minds around Google+ could fix it….

As it turned out, sharing was not broken. Sharing was working fine and dandy, Google just wasn’t part of it. People were sharing all around us and seemed quite happy. A user exodus from Facebook never materialized. I couldn’t even get my own teenage daughter to look at Google+ twice, “social isn’t a product,” she told me after I gave her a demo, “social is people and the people are on Facebook.” Google was the rich kid who, after having discovered he wasn’t invited to the party, built his own party in retaliation. The fact that no one came to Google’s party became the elephant in the room.

One of the best things about pre-Google+ Google is that it would experiment and fail fast, like when it shut down the “future of communication” Google Wave after lagging adoption. Google+, like Wave, isn’t feeling the love – the touted growth is inorganic, a function of deep integrations with nearly all of Google’s products and services, down to Google’s once stark, now social homepage. But Google+ will not be shut down – Google is going social at all costs. Even if the cost is finally giving a bold enough entrepreneur a doorway to create search dominance disruption. (Yes, it can be done.)

The irony of the whole situation is that Google actually had several winning formulas for social on its hands: Google Voice + Google Talk + Google Hangouts could have turned into a truly disruptive “Skype killer,” especially if Google was to give the service away for free, where Skype charged for its premium features. Google+ also has technology that could have transformed Picasa into a Flickr killer, especially considering its integration with Android and its instant upload feature. (Instead Google+ and Picasa still bizarrely co-exist).

But alas, Google is pushing Google+ as an all-encompassing Facebook competitor, since neither of the above routes to social would have been “big” enough to make Google a third name in social networking alongside Facebook and Twitter (and maybe even Foursquare).

And yes, some of us out there aren’t thrilled with the results of the push. And we blog about it.

That’s why you get news like this: semantic search, improvements to instant answers – things that remind you that elsewhere in Google, engineers are working on incredible technology that made you fall in love with Google in the first place.

In other words, Internet: won’t you please, please stop talking about how we ruined search with SPYW? Thanks, love Google.