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Google changes search results, snippets

March 24, 2009 |  1:25 pm
Google
Google changed its snippets today.

If you think your Google looked a little different this morning, it wasn't just that you needed more coffee. The search giant implemented two changes to its results pages today that it said would "help guide users more effectively to the information they need."

First: Search refinements. Google is trying to understand what you're looking for when you search, not just the words you type. So if you type "Paula Abdul Idol," for instance, Google will understand that you're looking for information about the "American Idol" judge, not people who idolize Paula Abdul. (If you want a geekier search term, check out the explanation on Google's blog post about "principles of physics.") At the bottom of the page (and sometimes at the top, Google says), it will give you terms related to the "American Idol" judge, such as "simon cowell paula abdul," "paula abdul ryan seacrest," and "paula abdul idol blunder."

The "searches related to" links have been around for awhile, but Google is trying to make them more relevant to users, said Greg Sterling, an editor at Search Engine Land. It's able to do that in part thanks to its acquisition of Orion in 2006, which was a search company that essentially expanded searches as Google is doing now.

"It's based on the better understanding of pages in real time, and ability to relate those pages to the query," Sterling said. These changes are similar to what search engines talk about ...

... when they talk about "semantic" search, which tries to understand what you're searching for based on the context of the words you use, rather than the actual words. The medical search site Healthline claims to have implemented semantic search on its site, Sterling said.

Google's other change relates to the lines of text, or snippets, that follow the search title. Now, Google says, when you enter a query longer than three words, it will give you snippets with longer lines that show you more of the words you typed into the search, showing those lines in bold. The query "spice market review shrimp starter dessert," Google says, will show you snippets that include a review of Spice Market, with segments talking about shrimp starters and desserts, with the relevant words in bold.

The point is to help searchers know whether the results are relevant before they click on the pages. It's a goal many search engines have been trying to perfect: RedZee, for instance, shows you pictures of websites as a search result to help you determine whether they're worth visiting.

Google is keeping mum about why it revealed these changes now, but some observers are speculating that it's a way to keep people on Google longer before they click to other sites, as they read the snippets and scroll down. And increased time spent on Google can't hurt ad rates.

Then again, it may just be a way to get people to like Google even more.

"We're constantly looking for ways to get you to the Web page you want as quickly as possible," said the post on Google's blog, by Ori Allen, the founder of Orion who is now technical lead for the search quality team, and Ken Wilder, the snippets team leader.

What remains to be seen is if these improvements will alter user behavior, either by keeping people on Google longer or by changing the way they enter search terms. If they don't like the bold and snippets, maybe they'll enter search terms that are shorter than three words. If they like the snippets, Sterling said, they could enter increasingly specific searches, knowing that the words they're looking for will show up in the results and potentially save them time.

Or it could just make them spend endless hours entering random searches to see what the snippets return. How many snippets from Web pages, for example, could turn up something with the query "celery unicycle record USA"? You'd be surprised.

-- Alana Semuels

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