John Kennedy speaks to Google’s director of product management for search Jack Menzel.
It is hard to believe that just 15 years ago, the two founders of a business that turned over US$50bn in revenues last year were trying to buy servers with maxed-out credit cards.
At Stanford University, Larry Page and Sergey Brin recognised that the internet at the time was a mess, and they sought out a way to make it easier to uncover information by ranking web pages.
Fifteen years later, Google is the most visited web page on the internet, it employs 54,000 people worldwide (including 3,000 in Ireland) and its interests span not only web search but mapping, email, operating systems, business software, clean tech, energy and more. Its Android smartphone operating system powers 70pc of the world’s smartphones, according to IDC, and video site YouTube, a start-up it acquired in 2006 for US$1.6bn in a stock-for-stock deal, is the third most visited website on the planet after Google and Facebook.
Google currently has close to 70pc of the world’s search engine market share, according to ComScore, but it has other competitors in its rear-view mirror. Microsoft’s Bing search engine has around 16pc of the world market, while Yahoo! has 12pc, Ask.com has 3pc and AOL has close to 2pc.
Internet within an internet
And now a new competitor is about to enter the fray. Social network Facebook, which has 1bn users – about a seventh of the world’s population – is getting ready to release its Graph Search that in many ways creates an internet within an internet, and many believe could vie with Google for listing businesses.
Google’s director of product management for search Jack Menzel brushed off the suggestion of competitive threat from the social networking giant. Google, he said, is more focused on the internet at large, rather than an internet within a social network.
“We’re focused on building a truly ‘universal search’ that can answer any kind of question or need, whether it’s a recommendation from a friend, the answer to a bit of trivia, or serious research.”
Despite the many other extensions of the Google brand today, Menzel said search remains at the core of its business and that ranking pages and information has never mattered more.
According to Menzel, Google is working on a new way of understanding the world’s information, what it grandly calls the Knowledge Graph, providing more than just ranked pages, but “ranked knowledge”.
“Where we are going to go with search over the next few years will be interesting. Instead of pointing you to pages to read, what we will really be doing is answering your questions with a whole tapestry of the right information, including web pages, map locations, photos, video and more.”
On the job at Google
From Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, Menzel leads the Google teams developing new technologies used for personalisation, question answering, web page summarisation, and image search.
He said the ambition is to not only to perfect search for a variety of devices from phones and tablets to computers, but also for devices without screens, such as cars, where people will enter or speak a search query as if in natural conversation and the information they need is instantly returned.
“The plan is to make search more natural and conversational, for example, voice search that is so intelligent that, no matter how flowery or difficult the language in your question, it will spot the context and pinpoint the information you need.”
Of course this strategy also incorporates social media, and Google+, the social network Google launched 18 months ago already has 500m users, of which 235m are active monthly users.
Menzel had advice to offer to Irish businesses to ensure they are “compatible” with Google’s vision for the Knowledge Graph.
“Firstly, get your business online. Simply publish your information online and our technology will find you. The second thing is to make your websites compatible for mobile devices. Very soon if you can’t be found instantly on a search on a mobile device, it will be like you don’t exist.”
He highlighted technologies like Google Places that help to guide people in real-time towards services they need, like a petrol station or an ATM. “Make sure your information is correct. If I asked my phone ‘where could I get a cup of coffee right now?’ it would be really helpful if the café owner had made sure the address and the opening hours were correct.”
Only time will tell if Facebook’s ring-fenced Graph Search can compete with Google’s vision for its open Knowledge Graph.
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 24 February
The history of internet search
The father of search was a chap called Gerard Salton, whose teams at Harvard and Cornell universities developed the Vector Space Model for Information Retrieval. His Theory of Indexing book describes much of the theories upon which search is still largely based.
The term hypertext was coined by Ted Nielson, who created Project Xanadu in 1960. He aimed to create a computer network with a simple user interface.
The first search engine recognisable to today’s internet users was Archie. A play on the word ‘archives’, Archie was created by Alan Emtage, a student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
The ‘web’ as we know it was born when Tim Berners-Lee saw an opportunity to connect hypertext with internet standards like TCP/IP and the world wide web came into being.
In 1994, David Filo and Jerry Yang created the Yahoo! Directory, a collection of their favourite web pages. They began charging commercial sites to be included in the lists, this giving rise to paid advertising online.
In 2000, Google’s founders and investors decided they needed to make money and Google Adwords was born. At that stage Google was competing against Yahoo! and Microsoft’s MSN.
Realising that content was king in terms of search, Google bought a video start-up called YouTube for US$1.6bn in 2006.
During this time, businesses began learning how to use search engines to attract customers – the discipline known as search engine optimisation (SEO).
Google’s Android operating system – which it licenses for free to manufacturers like Samsung and HTC – is a competitive tool that puts search in the hands of millions of people and sits on 70pc of smartphones sold in Q4 2012 (IDC).
The next biggest owner of smartphone market share, Apple, introduced voice-based queries to smartphones with its Siri assistant on the iPhone 4 in 2011. Google also has voice-based search on Android devices for searching the web, maps and more.
In January of this year, social network Facebook entered the search business with its Graph Search product. Still in testing, Graph Search proposes to connect users with knowledge of other users, businesses, media and more. With 1bn users, and with almost half of them using smartphones, could Facebook prove to be Google’s nemesis in the search business?