Google is announcing changes to its search product today, tied in part to the 20th anniversary of the company. The biggest announcement is that Google is rebranding its news feed as “Discover.” It will be on the Google Home page on all mobile browsers, a huge shift of the company as it works to better organize information and help users understand context.
Discover will do more to show relevant content — stuff that might not necessarily be just recent news. It will have topic links to dive deeper into content you’re seeing in the feed. There will a little slider on the lower-left of each card that will let you increase or decrease the amount of that types of news you’ll see in your feed. Discover will also support multilingual items, so you can get both English and Spanish items in your feed. More languages are coming soon. Many of these additions feel pulled from the redesigned Google News app, first unveiled back at the company’s I/O developer conference.
Google is also using computer vision to add more visuals to search. It has a new format called “Stories” that are based on its AMP standard. Google says that it’s “doubling down” on Stories in search, which presumably means we’ll be seeing more of them “in the coming months.” Stories will also appear inline in search, as well as “featured videos” that will show “salient segments” from videos. It creates an auto-advancing carousel of videos, showing just the relevant section of each video.
Google Images is also getting an update. There’s an entirely new ranking algorithm for image search. Additionally, it will show more “web content” inside the search, including specific page information on the search results page. The new UI will come to desktops this coming Thursday, September 27th. Google Stories are also getting added to image search.
Google Lens is also coming to Google Images.
Additionally, Google is also introducing new changes to Search, all related to improving the act of researching a topic online over the course of multiple days. Nick Fox, Google’s vice president of product at its Search division, detailed how it’s going to work at a press event in San Francisco this morning. Fox broke the changes down into three categories: journeys, collections, and topics.
The first new feature is that Google will work to show you previous searches you’ve made right in your search box. Fox talked about how Google is trying to move from “answers” to “journeys.” That sounds very much like standard Silicon Valley doublespeak, but for Fox it means that users may continue their searches on a topic over a number of days, and Google wants to help users arrive at a suitable destination.
“People keep coming back to the same topic over and over,” he says. Given that, Google is now going to begin surfacing parts of your history right in search, as an “activity card” that will show you previous searches. It will also surface a card titled “related activity,” showing you sites you’ve previously visited and searches you’ve previously made.
Next is “collections,” which will allow you to bookmark search results into a special viewer, where Google will also surface content suggestions. Think of it like Pinterest, but for Google Search. It’s coming later this fall.
Lastly, there’s a new “topic layer” being added to the Knowledge Graph, Google’s database of entities on the web. The new layer will understand more about certain topics, like astronomy, and should help users get to more advanced content as they get deeper in a topic.
Google Feed, which now has 800 million users, has sent 2.5 times more traffic to publishers over the last year. Google’s same topic layer technology is also getting applied to this news feed. The idea is that it will be able to show articles that might not be recent, but will still be relevant to you. (For example, if you’re traveling to a new city, Google will show older articles in your feed related to that city). The feed can also use this algorithm to show videos and events.
Today’s news comes as Google has become ever more embroiled in the politics of platforms and democracy. It declined to send its CEO to Congress for hearings, resulting in an empty chair getting berated. President Trump has accused the company of presenting biased search results, too. More attention has been paid the company’s plans to bring a search product back to China — a product that would presumably be censored and potentially make it easier to link search queries to people’s phone numbers. Google even reportedly told its employees to delete a memo related to the plan.
Very little of that context was on display in Google’s presentation, which instead focused on the positive. Ahead of the announcement, Google Search chief Ben Gomes laid out some of the history of how search works and the principles that guide Google’s product development. Pointing out Google’s advances in word matching, synonyms, and the Knowledge Graph, Gomes emphasized how Google is constantly trying to advance Search’s understanding of what words mean.
Gomes also discussed “neural matching,” a technique that uses documents online to help disambiguate imprecise language. For example, on a search for “TV that looks strange,” Google might know that in that context it’s referring to motion smoothing. This feature launched in the last few months, affect over 30 percent of queries.
As for the principles of search, Gomes said that it’s “focused on the user,” strives for “relevant and high-quality information,” follows an “algorithmic approach” to ranking information, and is heavily tested by users. But in a gesture to some of that drama, Gomes added “Search is not perfect, and we’re under no illusions that it is.”