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Google at 20: Tech giant unveils three big shifts in search

Google will not pursue a contract for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI for short, that calls for a massive cloud-computing system that can handle classified U.S. military data and enable new defense capabilities. (Associated Press)
Google will not pursue a contract for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI for short, that calls for a massive cloud-computing system that can handle classified U.S. military data and enable new defense capabilities. (Associated Press)
By Levi Sumagaysay Mercury News (San Jose)

SAN FRANCISCO – Google, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, is looking to the future as it unveils three big shifts in search that appear to take aim at some of its biggest competitors.

With Journeys, search users will have a chance to collect their searches and results over time. The company is also anticipating queryless searches, with VP of Search Ben Gomes saying, “We want to solve queries we haven’t even seen.” And it’s doubling down on visual.

Gomes, one of Google’s first principal engineers and now its head of search, kicked off a media event Monday in San Francisco by putting into perspective how far Google and the web have come.

“When Google was founded, the web was 25 million pages then,” said Gomes, who has been with the company for 19 of its 20 years. “Now, there are hundreds of billions of pages.”

The feel-good event came as the company is facing challenges galore, from questions about its reported revival of search efforts in China to controversy over leaked emails that showed Google employees discussing ways they might make changes in search to respond to President Donald Trump’s travel ban. Even though the company says no changes were made after those discussions, the news helped fuel even more conservative complaints that Google, like other tech giants, is too politically liberal.

“The kind of work we do, there’s a lot of scrutiny,” Gomes said in an interview after the keynote address. “We welcome that.” He said Google has an open culture, and follows processes and a system of testing its products and algorithms.

As for whether the company is looking to revive search in China after leaving that market years ago over censorship and cybersecurity concerns, Gomes called it “exploratory.”

The first big shift in search the company announced Monday is all about organization. Google has found that online searchers “keep going back to the same topics,” said Nick Fox, vice president of Search and Assistant products. The company’s new Journeys feature aims to give searchers a place to organize what they’ve searched for and found. It’s like Pinterest for search, but with an activity card that helps people pick up where they left off. More ways to organize and track content related to different search topics are coming.

Second, these days, tech companies want to anticipate our needs – and searches. The search giant is ramping up its effort on query-less searches, including by expanding the Google feed. The feed, which launched last year and now has 800 million monthly active users, is being rebranded as Discover. It surfaces articles, videos and other content tailored to users’ interests, a la Facebook. Discover’s reach is expanding, too: It’s coming to Google’s home page on mobile.

And third, Google Images is one of the most popular features of search, according to Cathy Edwards, vice president of Google Images. So the company is adding more related content to image searches, including video. It is also doubling down on visual stories in mobile. Think Snapchat or Instagram stories. And the company is incorporating Google Lens into Google Images, so clicking on the lens icon in Google Images yields a plethora of related images and content.

Google also highlighted initiatives that go beyond helping people find information for knowledge’s sake. It also wants to help them with their well-being, such as finding safety during times of crisis. For example, the company is using artificial intelligence – which is key to much of its search efforts – and is working with government agencies in India to help send flood alerts to the public that include crucial information such as when, where and severity of flooding.

Finally, Google – like LinkedIn – is going beyond simply providing job listings and connections. The company is working with the state of Virginia and its community colleges so it can help find not only jobs, but training for jobs. Last month, Google rolled out job-search tools for military veterans.

Also during the interview, Gomes talked about what keeps him going after almost two decades at the tech giant, which is celebrating its 20th year this Thursday.

It’s personal for him. During his keynote address, Gomes mentioned that he grew up in India with access to only one library. “What I could study or learn was limited to books that were in that library,” he said.

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