Why is Google Sweating Siri? Because the future of search is what you ‘say’ it is


Google Senior Vice President of search, Amit Singhal, introduces 'Hummingbird'

When it comes to search, Google is still king. But the search giant is facing stiffer competition than it has in years. Microsoft’s Bing is now Apple’s default search engine. And Apple is still working hard on making Siri interpret Bing search results in a conversational way, delivering real-time audio search results. And then there’s Facebook, edging into the search market with the Graph Search and grand plans to map the known world.

According to Business Insider, to hold its position as the dominant search engine, Google will have to master something called “latent search” a type of online searching that allows users more freedom with their queries. The current Google method of searching encourages us to type in concrete keywords in order of importance to pull up relevant results. For instance, if I want to try a pizza place with good reviews near my house, I’m best off Googling “pizza restaurant Kensington Market Toronto” and then combing through the results to get good reviews (or scanning Yelp).

A switch to latent search would allow me to enter something like “Toronto’s best pizza near my house” and get good results. Instead of focusing on keywords, a latent search is attuned to the meaning behind the question. The reason it’s so difficult: It’s a lot easier to use an algorithm based on keywords than it is to figure out a way to interpret nuanced meaning behind whole strings of words and phrases. But that’s what the future of search demands. 

Here’s what you need to know about the burgeoning battle to master latent search: 

Google announced an update to its search engine called Hummingbird this week, and it could keep the company on top.

Google considers Hummingbird its most substantial update in years, and it’s specifically designed to handle more conversational search queries — the “latent search” capability. Panda and Penguin, the company’s previous updates, wreaked havoc on search engine optimization (SEO) for certain websites and businesses, but it didn’t affect the way users experienced search in any obvious way. Hummingbird is different.

Google knows the Internet is going mobile, and that people want a more casual way to search.

While Hummingbird is certainly angering SEO experts used to peddling their way of racking up clicks a certain way, the most interesting part of the update is the way it sets Google up to become the type of search engine you yank out your phone and orally ask a question to, like Siri. Google highlighted the way this improved feature works in a blog post: 

“Having a “conversation” with Google should also be more natural. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to pull out your phone or tap buttons to use Google. We’re not quite there yet, but you can already do a lot with just your voice.” 

Google knows the Internet is going mobile, and that people want a more casual way to search, one more akin to asking a friend than figuring out the language an algorithm needs to interpret. And the company is using its Knowledge Graph to pinpoint exactly what you mean. 

But Hummingbird may not keep competitors at bay.

Google is the leader at latent search. But it has two aggressive main competitors, neither slouches: Apple and Facebook. In an alternate universe, Apple could’ve teamed up with Google on this, had Google remained a search engine and not set forth to dominate the mobile software industry with Android. Since search is going mobile, Google and Apple’s battle gained a new field, as Apple is now impinging on Google’s terrain by trying to establish the premiere voice assistant with Siri (and, of course, by partnering with Google’s search rival, Bing). Despite changes to Siri, she’s still kind of useless (just ask my mother, who ended up pulling into some dude’s driveway last weekend instead of the site of my cousin’s wedding, after using Siri as a GPS).

google-sweating-siri-latent-searchBut Apple already convinced people to start talking to Siri. If the company figures out how she can start answering conversational and abstract queries in a truly helpful way before Google does, Google could potentially lose a huge chunk of the mobile market (the iPhone-owning chunk). 

Facebook is aggressively pursuing search as well, and recent changes to its Graph Search highlight how the company wants people to look for and discover everything they need to know within Facebook. The social network is far behind Google when it comes to search, but it has one scary leg up: Now, more people spend their time on Facebook than Google, so if Facebook can rival Google’s search methods, there would be no reason to switch sites. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t shy about having lofty goals (like getting everyone in the world online) and from the emphasis Facebook is placing on search, the company wants to edge onto Google’s original turf. 

Why Google Glass matters to latent search…

Google Glass remains rare enough that sightings are events. But when the wearable technology becomes more widely available and relatively affordable, it will need a robust latent search option, since Glass works as a hands-free, voice-operated experience. Google needs to kick its quest to become the ultimate latent search engine into high gear for two reasons: to get in front of competitors and stay on top, yes, but also to make Glass more appealing and functional. If Glass can boast a voice assistant that uses latent search far more effectively than everything else on the market, it could help cement the nascent technology’s status as the next must-have device. 

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