Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Google Universal Search Patent Granted

Google was granted a patent today from the USPTO on Universal Search, which provides searchers with a mix of search results from different categories, such as news, images, advertisements, web pages, and kinds of results when they type in a search query

The original patent application was filed on December 31, 2003, and Google announced the introduction of Universal Search in May of 2007. The patent describes some different kinds of document categories that may be shown in search results, such as:

  • Sponsored links,
  • News documents,
  • Product documents,
  • Documents summarizing discussion groups,
  • Images,
  • General web documents, and;
  • Other document classifications

The Official Google Blog described a few more categories that could be shown to searchers in their announcement, Universal search: The best answer is still the best answer, including Maps, Books, Video, as well as additional contextual links to other categories of documents such as “blogs,” “books,” “groups,” and “code.”

Improving User Experience with Universal Search

The primary goal behind Universal Search, as noted in the patent, is to improve a user’s search experience without requiring them to have to choose a amongst different categories, such as images or news or web, before they send their query terms to the search engine.

Search engines have tried to provide access to different kinds of searches in the past, through the use of tabs or links above a search box that can lead to different kinds of results, such as news or images or products, but the patent’s authors tell us that “a large majority of users tend to ignore the category tabs, resulting in their search query being directed to the default category.”

Interface for a universal search engine
Invented by Bret Taylor, Marissa Mayer, and Orkut Buyukkokten
Assigned to Google
US Patent 7,447,678
Granted November 4, 2008
Filed: December 31, 2003

Choosing which Categories of Results to Show

Each of the different kinds of documents may be kept in separate databases, so that for instance, there’s a separate news category database, a separate product category data base, a separate image category database, and so on.

When someone performs a search, each of the databases may be searched to find the most relevant results in that database for the query terms that were entered by a searcher, and the results from each of those may be ranked.

The ranked results from each of the different data bases may then be compared to each other to see which provides the closest results to the search query.

For example, on a search for “buy running shoes, the results in the “products” category may be the most relevant to that search, and the ranking component may also look for terms like “buy” that indicate that a particular category may be related to a category like a “products” shopping category.

The patent also tells us that most searchers expect to see web page results when performing a search at a search engine, so a web page category will usually be the most prominent category for most searches.

Universal Search Interface

The interface shown for Universal Search in this patent is one where different groups of categories are shown in different segments of a page.

A more recent patent filing from Google has shown that the search engine has moved away from trying to group search results so strictly by category, blending different types of results together. I’ve written about that in How Google Universal Search and Blended Results May Work


The days of a search engine just providing a list of links in their search results are drawing further away as more kinds of content appear on the Web, and search engines are finding better ways of indexing that content.

News stories can present freshness in results, blog posts can provide unique perspectives, video can enable an alternative experience to reading, images can describe and tell a tale with one glance, and book results can lead to material that isn’t available online. Displaying results in these alternative categories of documents and others enables a richer experience for a searcher.

The pages of Google have remained very simple since the search engine was first introduced, and part of the reason for that was to make the site very fast, and easy to use even if you had a slow connection to the Web. As broadband access to the internet becomes more widespread, and as images and audio and video resources become more common, more colorful and complex results pages at search engines are more reasonable.

One of the challenges that site owners face is in presenting their audio and video and images and other non-text resources so that they can be found easily by people searching for what those site owners present on their pages. Universal and Blended search from the search engines provide ways for that material to be found by searchers.

This patent on Universal Search doesn’t tell us a lot that we haven’t already learned from using Universal Search for the last year and a half, but it does provide a few insights, such as a likelihood that most sets of seach results will always include Web pages because most searchers expect to see them, and that choice of different categories of results to present is tied most closely to how well the most relevant results in that category fit with the intent evidenced by a searcher’s query terms used during a search.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Google's approach to email

What's new in Gmail?

15 new Labs features to try out

From the useful to the playful, there's a whole lot more to play with in Gmail Labs, our testing ground for experimental features. Here's a taste of what's new since Labs first launched:

  • Google Calendar and Docs gadgets
  • A forgotten attachment detector
  • Advanced IMAP controls
  • Canned responses to save and send common replies automatically

Turn on these and more from the Labs tab under Settings, and don't forget to let us know what you think. Learn more

Gmail on Android

Gmail is now available on the world's first Android-powered phone, the T-Mobile G1. All of the features you love about Gmail on your computer, plus real time push email so you never need to refresh your inbox. Learn more

Emoticons – they're not just for chat anymore

Express yourself with emoticons from to or even . Click the button when composing a message in "Rich formatting" mode, or choose the new emoticons tab in chat, and express yourself to your 's desire. Learn more

Gmail for mobile 2.0

Save multiple mobile drafts, compose and read recent email offline, use new shortcut keys and more. Download Gmail for mobile 2.0 for your BlackBerry or J2ME phone by going to in your mobile browser.

What's been keeping us busy...

Gmail Labs: A testing ground for experimental new features
Try out features in development and let us know what you think. To get started with Labs, click the Labs tab under Settings. Learn more

Gmail has a new look on the iPhone browser
Now with auto-complete when composing, automatic refreshing, and faster load times when viewing email. Learn more

More friends are more fun. Gmail welcomes your AIM® friends.
Now you can talk to your AIM® friends using an integrated chat list right inside Gmail. Learn more

AOL and AIM are trademarks of AOL LLC

Colored labels
Better organize your email with new colored labels. Just click the color swatch next to each label to assign a color. Learn more

Group chat
Chat with multiple people without multiple windows. Invite your friends to a group discussion. To start a group chat, click 'Group chat' from the 'Options' menu when chatting. Learn more

New emoticons
Start sending richer expressions to your friends. Learn more

Sync your inbox across devices instantly and automatically. Whether you read or write your email on your phone or on your desktop, changes you make to Gmail will be seen from anywhere you access your inbox. Another way to use Gmail on your iPhone is through the browser. By going to you get the full Gmail experience including conversation view, search, and more. Learn how to set up IMAP on other devices.

Set up IMAP on your iPhone. Watch the video

  • View as slideshow
    Now you can open PowerPoint attachments as slideshows, without having to download anything. Just click "View as slideshow" next to the .ppt attachment you want to preview. Since you can open .doc and .xls attachments with Google Docs and Spreadsheets too, there's no need to leave your web browser to check out your Gmail attachments. Learn more

  • Increased attachment limit-- 20 MB!
    Now you can start sharing more of those home videos, large presentations and files you just can't seem to get smaller. We have doubled the allowable attachment size to 20 MB to make your Gmail space even more useful. Learn more

  • It's a Gmail party and everyone is invited!
    You can still invite your friends to enjoy Gmail's spam protection, 5GB free storage and other great features, but now you can also just tell them to visit and sign up without an invitation.

  • Get mail from other accounts
    Now Gmail can check for the mail you receive at your other email accounts. You can retrieve your mail (new and old) from up to five other email accounts and have them all in Gmail. Then you can even create a customized 'From:' address, which lets you send messages from Gmail, but have them look like they were sent from another one of your email accounts. Please note that you can only retrieve mail from accounts that have POP3 access enabled. Learn more

  • Embarrassment-reducing new message notifications
    Ever replied to a message only to find out that someone sent a better, smarter reply right before you? Now, if someone sends a reply while you're in the middle of reading a conversation (or replying to it), you'll get a notification that a new message has arrived. Click "update conversation" to see what you’ve missed.

  • Forward all
    When viewing a conversation, use the new “Forward all” link on the right if you want to forward the entire conversation instead of just one message.

  • Chat even when your friends are offline
    Chatting in Gmail just keeps getting better. Now, if you're chatting with a friend who goes offline, your friend will be able to see whatever you were typing the next time he or she goes online.

  • Get Gmail on your mobile phone
    Download it once, and start accessing Gmail on your phone with just a click or two. To try it for yourself, point your phone to Learn more

  • Voicemail
    Your friends can leave you a voicemail using Google Talk. The voice message is sent to your Gmail account as an audio file that you can download or play right from your inbox. Learn more

  • Reply by chat
    When you're about to (or in the middle of a) reply to someone, and you see that person online, you can just send your reply as a chat message. And if you've chosen to save your chat histories, then your chat even gets threaded with that original email conversation. Learn more

  • A picture's worth a thousand words
    With contact pictures in Gmail, you can pick ones for yourself, see which ones your friends have chosen, and set certain pictures to show up for specific people in your Gmail account. Best of all, you can even send picture suggestions to your friends. Learn more

  • Gmail Chat
    Get in touch with your friends instantly, from right inside Gmail! It's the biggest thing to happen to Gmail, since well, Gmail. Learn more

  • Vacation auto-responder
    Set an auto-response so that if you're lying on a beach or taking a train across Siberia, your friends will know you won't be checking your email. Learn more

  • Contact groups
    One of our most-requested features is finally here! Now you can send messages to a group instead of having to pick out the individual addresses every time.Learn more

  • View as HTML
    Now you can view Microsoft Office, OpenOffice or .pdf attachments as web pages by clicking the "View as HTML" link instead of downloading. For when you want to see it faster, you're on a mobile device, or you don't want to install software just to view a document. Learn more

  • Shortcuts on the right
    Now Gmail automatically detects addresses and tracking numbers, and displays useful information such as directions and package tracking alongside your messages.

  • Virus scanning is here!
    For your protection, Gmail now automatically scans for viruses every time you open or send a message with an attachment. We even try our best to remove all the viruses we find. Learn more

  • Export contacts
    Export your Gmail Contacts and save them in a file for back-up or to use in another account or service–great if you're using Gmail's free POP access. Learn more

  • Auto-save
    Saves to ‘Drafts' as you're composing. Never lose a half-written email again.

  • Get to Gmail from any web page
    Download the new Gmail-enabled Google Toolbar. Search your mail or instantly go to your Inbox from any web page with just one click. Learn more

  • Gmail on
    See your new messages directly from your personalized homepage.

  • Google Talk
    IM and make free calls through your computer with Google Talk. Your Gmail contacts are even pre-loaded. Learn more

  • Customized 'From:' addresses
    Customize the address on your outgoing messages to display another one of your addresses instead. Learn more

  • An application for Macs
    The Gmail Notifier for Mac OS X even supports plug-in development.

  • Free POP access and automatic forwarding
    Access your mail the way you want to. Download your messages. Read them offline. Use your Blackberry or Outlook or any POP-enabled device. Or forward new messages to an email account you specify. You can even switch to other email services without having to worry about losing access to your messages. Think of it as email portability Learn more

  • Import Contacts
    Move all your contacts from Yahoo! Mail, Outlook, and others to Gmail in just a few clicks. Learn more

  • Signature options
    From the settings page, create a signature that's automatically added to the end of all your outgoing messages. Learn more

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Evolution of Online Advertising Technology

Please bear with me as I go through a brief history of basic online advertising. The evolution of targeted online advertising is interesting, because I believe the perceived harmlessness of early advertising technology and targeting tactics lulled many people into a sense of complacency or perhaps even false security.

In the beginning of targeted online advertising, there were banner ads. As many people recall, these were supposed to drive the Internet marketing industry in its infancy. Scads of publishers paid scads of money based on a CPI (cost per impression) model or simply paid huge dollars for banner ads and other targeted online advertising on well-trafficked sites.

Then something crazy happened - nothing. It turns out that the banner advertising technology on the Internet was not the magic bullet it was purported to be. The old way of making money based on providing content (the way magazines and newspapers ran advertising) just didn't seem to work in this context.

This new advertising technology was part of the reason for the collapse of the dot-bomb era. All the talk was about "eyeballs," "stickiness," "bleeding edge," "cradle to grave," and several other terms that, in retrospect, would have sounded more at home in a Wes Craven movie than in an emerging industry. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of business models depended on a traditional marketing strategy working more or less the same as it always had when introduced into a non-traditional setting.

All the while, one company, originally called GoTo, then Overture, and finally bought by Yahoo!, actually formulated a targeted online advertising system that worked - keyword advertising. Companies could bid on a per-click basis for certain key terms, which sent valuable traffic to its website.

Obviously, the improvement in advertising technology had to do with the model itself, which was perpetuated on relevance. By only bidding on keyphrases that you wanted, you could only pay for visitors who had already shown an interest in your products or services. This targeted online advertising model was soon copied by Google, who tweaked it and made it better.

There were not many raised eyebrows at this time, in terms of privacy. After all, the user was the one entering the query, and nobody suspected at the time that search engines might one day actually create individual profiles on users. We were all just really enjoying "having the information at our fingertips" without the potential hazards of ink stains and paper cuts that traditional research required.

Google then took a similar idea a step further. Instead of just serving up targeted online advertising on its home page, the company created a content distribution network called AdSense. In this program, owners of websites could sign up to have the ads placed on their sites. Google would then use a "contextual" logic to determine which ads to place where. In other words, Google would "read" the content on a page and then serve up targeted online advertising in the area provided by the site owner that was relevant to the content.

There were a few missteps with this new advertising technology (one classic example was when the online version of the NY Post ran a story in 2004 about a murder victim whose body parts had been packed into a suitcase. Running alongside the story was an ad that Google served up for Samsonite Luggage). Yet this targeted online advertising service also caught on, with nary a cry from privacy people. After all, you don't have to visit the sites. And the site owners don't have to sign you up for the service, right?

Suddenly, Gmail was offered and that raised some eyebrows. Gmail, of course, is Google's free email-based platform. Gmail gave people an (at that time) unprecedented 1 gigabyte of email space (Yahoo!, if memory serves, offered 4 megs for free email accounts and charged people for more memory). The only caveat – Gmail would use a similar advertising technology platform as AdSense, but it would decide which ads to serve up by reading through your emails.

Well, this new approach to advertising technology creeped some people out, and privacy advocates were a bit more vocal about using targeted online advertising by parsing through people's emails. A California lawmaker tried to introduce some legislation preventing the practice. International privacy groups chimed in with their own concerns. In the end, however, the fact remained that one had to sign up for a Gmail account and everyone that did was (presumably) aware of how the service worked before they did sign up. So it was an opt-ín system – If you didn't want Google parsing through your email and serving up relevant, targeted online advertising, you didn't have to use the service.

So there we all were, happily surfing away, not a care in the world. What most of us didn't realize was that enough free cookies were being distributed to each of us to turn the otherwise docile Keebler elves into tree-dwelling Mafioso erroneously plotting a turf war.

These cookies, of course, are the ones that websites place on your computer when you visit – little packets of information that record your visit, and sometimes, your activity there. Certainly, there's a legitimate reason for this. When you return to a website, it can help if it remembers your last visit and you can pick up where you left off. Assume, for example, that you were making multiple purchases from an e-commerce site and had a bunch of stuff in your shopping cart but were forced to abandon the site before completion. It's nice to go back and pick up where you left off without having to do it all over again.

Digital advertisers, however, saw another opportuníty for targeted online advertising. They invented advertising technology that would scour through the cookies on your personal machine, figure out what you liked and disliked by looking at the types of sites you went to, and then feed up highly targeted online advertising based upon your browsing history. These companies included aQuantive, DoubleClick, ValueClick, and others. Of the companies I mentioned, only ValueClick is still independent. Google snapped up DoubleClick, while Microsoft snapped up aQuantive. Clearly, these companies believe in the future of Internet advertising technology and also believe in the long-term legality of this technology.

Now some real red flags were raised. I've written about this advertising technology before, so I'm not going to go over it all again here. Suffice to say that some government regulators were pretty skeptical about this new form of advertising technology and there have been numerous suggestions for regulation. The lack of uproar from the public, however, has not really created any backlash for the companies in question. It could be because there is widespread ignorance about Internet advertising technology (and I believe there is, based on conversations with people of average Internet experience). Perhaps a part of it is also that privacy has been eroding on the Internet one incremental step at a time.