Meet Hummingbird: Google Just Revamped Search To Answer Your Long …

Google has updated its core algorithm that controls the answers we get to queries on its search engine in a bid to make them work better for longer, more complex questions.

The update, code-named Hummingbird, is the biggest change to the underpinnings of the world’s leading search engine since early 2010, when Google upgraded its algorithm to one it called Caffeine. Google made the change about a month ago, it announced at a press event in the garage of the Menlo Park (Calif.) house where Google started. The event also celebrated the 15th anniversary of Google’s founding, which is tomorrow.

Most people won’t notice an overt difference to search results. But with more people making more complex queries, especially as they can increasingly speak their searches into their smartphones, there’s a need for new mathematical formulas to handle them.

This update to the algorithm focuses more on ranking sites for better relevance by tapping further into the company’s Knowledge Graph, its encyclopedia of 570 million concepts and relationships among them, according to Amit Singhal, Google’s senior VP of search. (For example, there’s a Knowledge Graph “card,” or information box, for the Eiffel Tower, and Knowledge Graph knows it’s a tower, that it has a height, that it’s in Paris, etc., so Google can anticipate you might want to know some of those facts.) Caffeine was more focused on better indexing and crawling of sites to speed results.

After the event, Scott Huffman, a key engineering director at Google currently working on natural language, told me that part of the impetus for the change was that as more people speak searches into phones, they’re doing so in a more natural way than they type in queries–which is to say more complicated. So Google’s search formulas needed to be able to respond to them.

Partly that is through even great use of the Knowledge Graph, so obvious discrete terms can be identified quickly. But it’s also interesting that although queries are getting more complex, that doesn’t always mean it’s harder to find the right answers. The more terms people use, Huffman says, the more context Google can divine. So those extra words, even if they’re in a more complex query, can give Google better information–but only if the algorithms are adjusted to be able to recognize the relationship among those terms.

Ultimately, he says, “we want to get to a natural conversation” between people and Google search on whatever devices they’re using.

You can read a few more details on Google’s blog post and see other accounts on Techmeme. Here’s my live account of the event:

Google is announcing some updates to its search engine at a press event in Mountain View this morning.

We just got bussed to 232 Santa Margarita, Menlo Park–the house where Google started. So it must be something special! Inside the house are Googley lights and a neon Google sign.

It looks like they’re going to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Google. I think I overheard that cofounder Sergey Brin might come. Update: No Sergey. Oh well.

And now we all pile into the legendary garage! Susan Wojcicki, Google’s senior VP of advertising and commerce, who owned the house when she rented it to founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, tells us before the event that they were working all the time. There’s a toolbox, a drill, a Skilsaw–no doubt for show–along with a small stage with screen and podiums. And of course a colorful Google bike hanging on a wall.

Wojcicki starts by talking about the early days. It’s a little strange to be doing a press event and seeing TV cars in front of my own house, she says. She lived here seven years. Larry and Sergey were at Stanford in 1998 and were looking for office space, she says. She was worried about paying the mortgage, so the deal with her husband was that if they were going to buy it, they’d rent part of it out.

Most things in the house are original–including the blue carpet under our feet in the garage. I didn’t really know what to think about the company, she says, and by the time seven people were working and living here, it was getting time to find other space.

Before I knew it, says Wojcicki, who was working at Intel at the time, all my searches were on Google. I realized how important Google became to me, she says, and realized she wanted to be part of Google.

She still had to interview, though she didn’t manage to join while they were still in the house, which would have meant a very short commute. We all had Palm Pilots, she says, but a lot of things are the same today. Three things in particular:

The first one is a commitment to building great search experiences for users, she says. She recalls one example of someone who suspected a heart attack was coming on, searched Google for symptoms, and realized the person needed medical help.

Second, we wanted to be a global company, she says. If you go into the back room in the house, there was a whiteboard that said “Google’s worldwide headquarters.”

When I got to Google, I asked, who should we market to? They said, “Everybody.” She said she didn’t learn that in MBA school.

Third, there was a focus on thinking big. We’re still thinking about making technology that will change people’s lives, she says. So even though a lot of things are different at Google, a lot of things are the same.

Amit Singhal, Google’s senior VP of search

Now comes Amit Singhal, SVP of search, to trace the history of search. We are just getting started, he says. Search has been foundational to the development of online, he notes. Search has been the main catalyst by making all this growth on the Web findable.

Google will keep reinventing itself to give you all you need for a simple and intuitive experience, he says. At some point, pulling out a smartphone to do a search will feel as archaic as a dial-up modem.

Some visible milestones along the way in search: spell-checking in search (2001), the concept of synonyms in a search (2003), autocompletion of queries (2005), universal search on all kinds of topics in one interface (2007), Google Instant to save several seconds per search (2010), Knowledge Graph to understand concepts and not just words (2012), and most recently voice search and Google Now, the predictive search service.

So what’s next? Singhal says Google should answer your questions, have a conversation in a natural way, and even anticipate what you might want to know.

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