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Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Friday, 19 March 2010

Google search becomes visual and personal

By Peter Price
BBC Click

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Google Goggles demo of searching with a picture

Google has fingers in many pies such as e-mail, blogging, video, instant messaging, social networks and mobile phones.

But the company is still best known for its search engine which has around 65% of the market.

To retain this status and reputation, Google must continue finding innovative ways to link users to information on the web.

The firm is currently developing a visual search tool called Google Goggles - it lets consumers use a picture instead of keywords as the search query.

The tool compares an image captured on a mobile phone with Google's database in the cloud to return relevant information.

Google Labs logo
Google Labs hosts Goggles, Image Swirl and other projects in beta

Aparna Chennapragada, product manager for computer vision products at Google, said the company's mission was to organise the world's information, and much of that data is now pictorial.

"Information coming online right now is increasingly visual. So there are more images and more videos being uploaded by your cameras."

She said visual search was more intuitive for users: "We're actually pretty good at seeing and recognising. That's what we want versus having to describe in words and trying to recall what we're searching for."

Goggles is in beta testing, but it is currently available for Android devices running Android 1.6 and above.

Image association

Google employees devote one day per week to developing new innovations. Those ideas that make it off the drawing board are thrown open to the public via the Google Labs website - the experimental lab where many of the firm's popular services started.

Information coming online right now is increasingly visual
Aparna Chennapragada, Google

Another project still in the lab is Image Swirl which inspects an image and organises search results based on related photos from around the web.

The software analyses familiar objects in the image and offers alternatives which are visually similar.

Ms Chennapragada said visual recognition had evolved rapidly in recent times.

"A few years ago it would have been unthinkable to say that we can get machines to process and recognise faces as well as humans do but we're pretty close right now," she said.

Social searching

As well as developing novel search methods, Google changes its top secret search formula more than 500 times a year.

This strategy attempts to stop commercial sites from manipulating the system to improve their ranking, and keeps results relevant.

Maureen Heymans, technical lead at Google
Maureen Heymans said social search will offer more personal results

The idea of relevance is being taken one step further by the company which is working on new types of refined results.

Last year both Google and Microsoft struck deals with Twitter to include live tweets on their search indexes.

Google Social Search returns information posted by friends such as photos, blog posts and status updates on social networking sites.

It is currently only available in the US and will be coming to the rest of the world soon.

Maureen Heymans, technical lead at Google, said this kind of search means the information offered is personal to the user.

"When I'm looking for a restaurant, I'll probably find a bunch of reviews from experts and it's really useful information.

"But getting a review from a friend can be even better because I trust them and I know their tastes. Also I can contact them and ask for more information," she said.

In future users' social circles could provide them with the answers they seek, as long as individuals are prepared to make those connections public.

If people embrace social search then giant corporations will have an ever expanding influence over their online life.



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