Catalyst House

Google Will Know What You Seek BEFORE You Do!

Google Search Guru Amit Singhal

Inside Google’s search quality group, Amit Singhal heads up the main search-ranking team, which is who creates those infamous algorithms that you hear so much about these days. Amit’s division ran some 16,000 experiments in 2010 that attempted to adjust those mathematical formulas, ultimately producing over 1000 greater and lesser changes in Google’s search formula.

Dr. Singhal, a former researcher at AT&T Labs (the former Bell Labs), joined Google in 2000 and now is a Google Fellow, a title reserved for its most accomplished engineers.Eleven years on, the search guru is still obsessed by information retrieval – the name by which search was known in academic circles until the advent of the internet in the late nineties.

“The big issue is semantics—the idea that sleep, sleeping, and running are all variations of the same fundemental word. This has been researched intently by academia for over five decades. In my academic life, I said, of course, apple means the same as apples,” reminisces Singhal in a 2009 Business Week interview.

“But when I come to the real world, apple means one thing and apples means something else. Humans understand that in some contexts, Apple means a computer, and in some contexts it means a front. Or in some contexts, GM means General Motors and in some contexts, GM means genetically modified. Or does the word bio mean biography? It depends on what’s around it.”

For his major contribution, Singhal has effectively rewritten Sergey Brin’s magic formula, and changing the way the world accesses information forever. However, Singhal is still frustrated with search.

Emma Barnett at the UK Telegraph reports –

Despite having just announced a raft of impressive search innovations, which include being able to ask Google questions out loud and drop in any old holiday snap into the engine in order to find out forgotten details about a trip from long ago, Singhal wants more from “his relationship with his search engine”.

Google guru Amit Singhal: search engine should be an ‘expert friend’

When I meet him at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, he explains excitedly: “Search still feels very one dimensional. You give us a query and we [Google] returns some results…It needs to be far more communicative. You need to be able to have a conversation with your search engine. I want my search engine to be the expert who knows me the best. It needs to know you so well that sometimes you don’t need to ask it the next question.”

That will sound ominous to plenty of people. Could an Orwellian, Big Brother-style menace be on the horizon, ushered in by this casually-dressed, laid-back scientist and his colleagues?

Singhal instantly offers assurances that Google, and all search engines, would need to be very respectful of users’ privacy when building and implementing such technologies.

However frightening the vision of a search engine which knows what a person wants to know before they even do may seem, Singhal makes a convincing case for the transformative experience it will offer users. And as ever with these disruptive innovative technology companies, seems to be offering people a solution to a problem they don’t yet know that they have.

“I still waste a lot of time when I am searching. The conversation still feels broken… Search is not as efficient as I want it to be.

“For instance, today I have a ‘to-do’ list on my phone which contains tasks like – ‘pick up a gift for my father’. The phone has a GPS system and knows where I am. It also contains my calendar, so it knows when I am free.

“Why shouldn’t a search engine, which I have built a personalised relationship with, be able to sync up all that information and tell me when I am near a shop which has a gift in it that my dad would like at a time when I am free?”

Singhal describes this type of pre-emptive relationship with a search engine as the “holy grail” but says that Google and the technologies available are not that far off this type of interaction.

However, he warns that his Google team of engineers who are making the glue needed to stick all the elements of people’s lives together in this coherent fashion, will need to be “intelligent”, otherwise it will be interruptive which is not acceptable.

“We need to make sure that the way we create this type of intuitive search is intelligent – otherwise it will just annoy people and not have the desired effect – which is to make lives easier and speed up the search for relevant information.

“Putting the finish on this type of product, which links all aspects of our lives together – is no easy feat,” he explains.

He also knows that search, which is still the core of the company and responsible for the majority of Google’s revenues, and all other products the technology giant brings out, need to represent good enough value for people not to mind paying with their data.

“When we launch a service which brings a lot of benefits to the consumer, they thrive despite all the questions surrounding users’ privacy. However, we know that if a product doesn’t give a user enough value, then we know it cannot overcome the necessary hurdles.”

Singhal admits that search has gone further than he ever thought it would in his life time. He says is getting more and more confident every day that his vision of a search engine people regularly communicate with on a two-way basis will also be realised during his career at Google, which he hopes will never end.

“I have gotten very hopeful that this type of search engine is coming. You are seeing hints of it in Google Voice search and other bits we are introducing. The conversation is finally starting to flow.”

Catalyst House