Page last updated at 07:36 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 08:36 UK

Google rolls out search changes

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

time line screenshot
The Timeline archives date back to the 1400s

Google has launched two experimental products it hopes will change the way users search for pictures and news.

A feature known as Similar Images uses a picture rather than text to find other matching images.

Timeline presents information already available in Google News but organised and displayed chronologically.

Alongside these features is a new version of Google Labs, in which users can take a peek at what its thousands of engineers are working on.

Amid past criticism that Google has wasted too much time and effort on projects that have little impact, the aim of the Labs upgrade is to make prototypes available earlier.

"The idea we are trying to build here with Labs and the culture of innovation is to close the gap at the point of which a new idea is hatched and the time it takes to get into the hands of users for feedback," said Google director of product management R J Pittman.

This means engineers can find out at a much earlier stage what does and does not work in a new feature or product allowing them to either reshape it or scrap it altogether.

Google said that in the present economic climate this approach made complete sense.

"We are not especially sure where the industry is headed or the economy is headed but we do know that innovation is alive and well at Google," said Mr Pittman.

"This is a time when innovation is at its most critical in any company."

"Hard problem"

Google is the leader in search with nearly 64% of the American market compared with Yahoo, which has just over 20% and Microsoft with 8.3%

By adding new features to enrich the experience, it is undoubtedly hoping to increase its grip on the world of search.

similar images screenshot
Google is letting users experiment with visual search

Similar Images allows users to sort through the results of an image search more easily by clicking on a link. In a presentation to journalists, Google's director of engineering Radhika Malpani used the example of Paris to illustrate the benefits of the new feature.

While the initial search came up with the celebrity Paris Hilton, the Eiffel Tower and a photograph of an old church, clicking on any one of these images would restrict the search to one of the three. In other words the query is expressed visually as an image and not text.

"Image search is an inherently hard problem to solve because it is a visual problem and explains why people say an image is worth a thousand words because it is so difficult to describe," said Ms Malpani.

She said Google's goal was to "cover all the public images of the world and make all the images accessible to all our users".

"Work of art"

Google said another tool to help users find more relevant results was through the Google News Timeline.

It is the brainchild of Andy Hertzfeld, a key member of the original Apple Macintosh development team.

Andy Hertzfeld
Mr Hertzfeld said Timeline was something he wanted for himself

Using Timeline, users searching for baseball scores or the Iraq War will be shown a history of articles, photographs and videos arranged by date, week, month or year. Users can also refine the search to specific magazines, newspapers or blogs. Other search possibilities include Wikipedia, movies, music or even video games.

"I am like a kid in a candy store with all this information and it's great to make it accessible to our users," Mr Hertzfeld told BBC News.

"I think being able to see the culture of the human race laid out on the computer screen like this is fantastic. It's its own work of art seeing the sum of what humanity cared about through time."

"Newer approaches"

Out of all the work being done at Google, the company decided to unveil two projects that are closely aligned to a growing shift in the world of search.

"They are reflective of what Google started doing with universal search," explained internet analyst Greg Sterling.

"This shows they are pushing beyond text into other areas and other ways to present content. The approach is much more about multi-media, different views and different ways to navigate through data," said Mr Sterling.

RJ Pittman Google product manager
Mr Pittman says the new features show innovation is alive and well at Google

Google's Mr Pittman agreed but also said that the traditional method remained the bedrock of search.

"Keyword search is still critical and mainstream. It is also pivotal because it is a very efficient mechanism where someone asks a question and they get an answer that is relevant and useful. I don't see that going away.

"These newer approaches are starting to tap into the appetite of the real-time web. These audiences are discovering new ways to search the web and get information and sound bites. These are early days for us and that's why we launched these new products.

"We make no claims about how they are going to change the face or shape of search but we think they have very compelling potential to do so. But we will let our users give us some feedback first and help us steer these in the right direction," stated Mr Pittman.

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