Google Search: A Discussion About The Past, Present And Future With Jack Menzel

During a visit to the Googleplex last week, I sat down with someone so passionate about search, it’s as if it’s his job or something. Well, it is, and Jack Menzel, Director, Product Management of Google Search, is as excitable as it gets when it comes to talking about his passion.

Who can blame him, though? A lot of people use Google as their default search engine, and that’s no mistake. For almost seven years, Menzel has been laser-focused on making search so simple, that you don’t have to learn how to do it. As the years have passed, you don’t have to be a pro to “Google”, to find the information that you need.

When I spoke with Menzel, I focused on what the future of Google Search looks like, from an insider’s perspective:

The future of search, the way we think about it, is that we want to be able to answer any question. It’s important to not just think of it as “trivia”, though. For example, I want to buy a fuel efficient car. There’s no real solid way to return an answer that simply says “Tesla.” There’s a process, including good sources, you’ll go to those sources and read reviews. The answer to the question (the future of search) is that we’ll be able to understand more about what you’re asking.

I found that Menzel answers many questions in this way, meaning that there is no simple answer to how search will evolve. It’s a difficult problem to solve in a scalable way, but to Google’s testament, they’ve made it look quite simple to us outsiders.

The important focus for Google is to make search act as naturally as possible. “Google wants to give you the world’s most understandable information in the best possible way”, Menzel told me. This “best possible way” includes letting people ask followup questions, as if Google is your best friend and is sitting right next to you on the couch or in the car.

That’s whats motivating us in the future of search.

It’s a tall order, especially when Menzel describes computers as simple “counting machines”, that have to be turned into a machine that can naturally answer any question with powerful algorithms. That made me feel like everything that I’ve done in my career is somewhat trivial.

The key to letting anyone be a pro at using Google Search is the input choices that the company provides, Menzel tells me. Right now you can use your keyboard, voice or Google Goggles, which lets you take a photo of something. Menzel says that “Human language is imprecise, you have to be able to identify its ambiguities and understand what the person is asking.” Once again, no small problem.

Google doesn’t only collect all of the information in the world, the company has to understand it as well. Menzel tells me that crawling the web is incredibly hard, since there are so many mediums to publish fresh content onto the web these days. People have that “real-time” expectation of Google Search, and Menzel tells me that it’s an ongoing project to make the index as up-to-date as possible:

There’s no API for the world. How do you know if a road block is in the middle of a street you’re trying to drive through? What would it really take to understand the information in the world?

When Google crawls a page, it’s not simply reading the data and content on that page, it’s learning about how it’s formatted and what the actual context on the page is. For example, Google knows if a review of a flat-screen TV is about last year’s model, and ranks it accordingly. “You can provide a summary and get them answers quicker if you understand all of that.”, Menzel told me matter-of-factly.

If all of this sounds like work, it is. Hard work, in fact. But Menzel is excited to go to the Googleplex every day:

The reason why it’s so exciting to work in search right now is because it’s like science fiction. It’s like mapping the world. Pragmatically modeling the whole world. Google Search is a Knowledge Graph representation of the web.

Things that used to be difficult are getting easier as Google learns more about the information that it collects:

Because we’re creating this graph of information and applying it to the world, you’re able to do these cool kind of things that used to be hard to do. We’re helping people express themselves more easily.

When it comes to the past for search, there are numerous things that I simply can’t imagine not being able to do. Universal search changed everything, and I wouldn’t want to go back to a world where I can’t search for a topic and get links, images, videos and maps back as a result on one page.

I personally like to observe how other people use technology. For me, when I use Google, I don’t have to think about anything. I simply type in whatever is on my mind and pour through the results that I receive. For others, that’s not the case, and Google wants that to change, according to Menzel:

We want to be able to make people feel like they don’t have to figure out what to search first. You shouldn’t have to think, we will get you as close as we possibly can. You shouldn’t have to learn how to search. It should be like a best friend. Search should be conversational, search should be easy. You shouldn’t have to be in a “mode.”

The lack of universal search wasn’t the only milestone that changed the game, Menzel tells me that Google’s ability to know where you are, location-wise, helps return more relevant search results. Google hasn’t always been location-aware, and going back to that world scares me. Imagine how hard you would have to work to find a restaurant in your neighborhood if Google didn’t know where you were at the moment. Yikes.

Crawling the web has also gotten more sophisticated, Menzel explained:

How fast we crawl the web, that’s crazy! When Google started, we were crawling once a month. Sometimes the crawler broke and we skipped months. Today when people publish things they want to know why it’s not there. Sometimes it’s even a bug when its not instantly on Google.

Some evolutions in Google Search you’ve been able to see immediately, some not so much. It’s usually the changes you can’t see with your eyes that make most of the difference:

Remember when there wasn’t auto-complete and search? That sucked. The improvements we make are usually ones you can’t see, though. Algorithmic innovations are hard to explain and some of our core ranking improvements are really phenomenal.

To say that Jack Menzel is an interesting character would be an understatement. The same would go for saying that he’s ridiculously smart and his brain-wheels are always churning. I could tell during our conversation that he was probably thinking two or three years down the road, as far as what his team is experimenting with. I was able to get a really interesting insight into how things work at Google, at least for the Search team. At the end of the day, most people know of Google as the “search company”, so it’s only fitting.

When it comes to integrating social into all of its products, Menzel tells me that Google is “just getting started.” We chatted for a while about it, but that’s for another piece on another day.