Google's search chief wants to offer voice search on the iPhone and a better way to keep up with friends than Facebook -- but first, she has to convince Australians to use iGoogle.
Speaking at the Search Marketing Expo conference in Sydney, Marissa Mayer, vice president for search and user experience at Google, said that while the customised iGoogle home page now had as many users globally as Gmail, Australians were not quite so enthusiastic. "People here haven't adopted iGoogle as much as we'd actually like to see," she said. Globally, the service was growing at "YouTube-type rates", Mayer remarked.
What most of the audience wanted to know was how Google would alter its services in the future. Long-term improvements in the relevance of search sites will come from personalised search features, Mayer predicted.
"The search engine of the future will know more about you. It might know that you're a rugby fan; it might know that last week you bought face paint. It will know what you clicked on in the past, and it will use that to build better results for you." (Privacy advocates, load your weapons now.)
An obvious element of personalisation is what Mayer terms "social search", and what the rest of us term "asking our friends what they think".
"No one has done a good job of social search to date, Google included," Mayer said. "We know that social search is a big part of how people find information, and we know it hasn't translated very well to the Internet. The notifications approach used on sites such as Facebook doesn't suit searching, Mayer said. "You don't want all of your searches broadcast to your friends." Nor did expecting users to tag content: "Tagging works to some extent in search, but because the amount of content is so vast it's very hard to tag everything. It's hard to tell exactly what to do."
One approach being examined by Google is aggregation of activities by people you identified as friends, broadcasting messages such as "three of your friends just read this news story". "Those types of discovery tools are going to be the first steps we take in the social sphere," Mayer said.
While information such as location and long-term search history might appear to be useful in making search results more relevant, Mayer said she was still sometimes surprised at what actually made the most difference.
"One of the biggest improvements we've seen to relevance is the query you just did. The biggest relevance boost we have actually comes from just that one signal. We don't understand those other signals well enough. We're really just in our infancy in the notion of relevance as it relates to individuals."
Rather improbably comparing Google's integrated "universal search" feature to the discovery of gravity, Mayer emphasised that search technologies were still rudimentary. "Search right now is like physics or biology in the 1600s. Right now we're still having really fundamental breakthroughs." Despite the potential for advancement, adding new features to search sites was inherently risky, Mayer suggested, as users didn't want their familiar experience disrupted. "It's amazing the laser focus the users have and it's amazing how impatient they are," she said. "You ultimately don't want to get in the way of that fast experience."
Google iPhone home
Inevitably, talk turned to the iPhone. "We think the iPhone has really pushed the envelope with having a full browser, Safari, where you can do full search," Mayer gushed. (Yes, we can hear the executives from RIM and Opera and Microsoft's Windows Mobile division screaming "What about our browsers?" from here.
In the future, Google wants to move from keyword search on the iPhone to using voice commands to enter searches, Mayer said. "Trying to grow the search market by moving into these new venues is going to be really important to the future of search."
The lack of speed on the iPhone's 2G networks apparently doesn't dissuade people from using it for more data-intensive tasks such as map searches. "We see plenty of searches coming over from the 2G network as well [as on WiFi connections]."
Speaking of maps, Mayer said that Google hoped to launch Street View, its controversial system that shows street level photography in larger cities, for Sydney in 2008, possibly "in a few months". Hopefully that might be accompanied by an update that removes some of Google's more obviously inaccurate Australian data. Google's product search will also shortly be incorporated into its universal search results, Mayer said.
However, some recent enhancements may disappear. Google has been experimenting with offering a search box next to the results list that allows users to search the indexed site without leaving Google. "We already are in some cases tuning that down," Mayer said. "For instance, our crawls information on eBay is not fresh enough; we shouldn't show 'search eBay' as an option on our site. We're really looking at the overall usage patterns at the moment."