Mayer: Right now Google is really good with keywords and that's a limitation we think the search engine should be able to overcome with time. People should be able to ask questions and we should understand their meaning, or they should be able to talk about things at a conceptual level. We see a lot of concept-based questions -- not about what words will appear on the page but more like "what is this about?". A lot of people will turn to things like the semantic Web as a possible answer to that. But what we're seeing actually is that with a lot of data, you ultimately see things that seem intelligent even though they're done through brute force.
When you type in "GM" into Google, we know it's "General Motors." If you type in "GM foods" we answer with "genetically-modified foods." ... Because we're processing so much data, we have a lot of context around things like acronyms. Suddenly, the search engine seems smart, like it achieved that semantic understanding, but it hasn't really. It has to do with brute force. That said, I think the best algorithm for search is a mix of both brute-force computation and sheer comprehensiveness and also the qualitative human component.
IDGNS: Where is the universal search effort at Google?
Mayer: It is early stage and we're working on more radical things now. The team launched [universal search] in May ... Books, images, news, video and local information have now been blended in [with general Web search]. The team is now devoting its time and energy to three different pieces. They're working really hard to internationalize universal and bring it to all of our different countries and languages, because it's English-only and largely in the U.S. They're working on bringing in [other vertical engines] like blog search, patents, scholar. And they're also looking at how to do more radical things in terms of overall ranking and relevance and user presentation, the user interface piece.
The reason why universal search was such a big change for us was that there were three [key] pieces [to adapt]. We had to change the entire infrastructure to make the thing cost effective. Then there's the ranking piece: Now that you have all these results, how do you order them? And the final piece was the user interface.
Now the infrastructure is in place and the engineers can finally get to have fun thinking about what they can do in terms of relevance and ranking, and user interface. With that third [user interface] piece, we're doing a lot of experimentation building a bunch of interesting prototypes of how universal search could play out this year, or two or three years out.
IDGNS: Is the ultimate goal to fold all these vertical tabs of news, image, video, book search and so on into the general Web search query box?
Mayer:We want people to think of the search box as one query box. That said, we do acknowledge that there are times when you know you want an image or a news story, so obviously we'll still have links to those independent indices. But you shouldn't have to use those if you're not an expert and you don't know what's there [in all our specialty search engines] ... We'd like all of those [secondary indices] to be integrated into the main [Web] search engine.