How search engines are getting smarter

Location-aware search

When you carry out a structured search, it helps the engine enormously if it knows your location; then it can suggest places close to you, for example. And location-aware search is clearly going to become more and more relevant as more people start searching via mobile phone.

Google has improved its mobile search a lot, Galler says, but it has some very specific challenges. "What we're making sure is that we have the same level of quality that we have on the web, and then we can focus on adapting the 'use case' for the users, so the way we show search results on the phone is very different to the way we show them on the web.

"We want to be much more local, so we include a lot more location-specific signals to allow for a more specific search around the geographical location of the searcher." This is made much easier with richer UIs on devices such as the iPhone, he says. "It's much harder to provide a good mobile search experience on phones that don't have the same level of browser."

Mobile search is also a function of other search engines, including Live Search. "If you go to com today, there's a thing on there that says 'find me' and it figures out where you are," says Stoddart, adding that location-aware search is also important when we're searching from PCs.

"Local searching is really important to us as a company, and not just on mobile search," he says. "A large proportion of searches done on the web today are location-based. For example, 'I want to find a restaurant in this area'. Wouldn't it be great if the search engine knew where you were? That could work by you defining where you are: for example, 'I'm at work' or 'I'm at home', and the search engine has a list of your different addresses. Or it could hook up to your mobile. Location-aware searching is an area where we're poised to do some really exciting stuff in because it's all about this connected world."

Real-time local search

Once the search engine knows where you are, you can expect more real-time information. Search is currently weak for local, real-time information. For example, you can't ask 'Why is there a traffic jam outside my house? Should I take a different route to work?' Galler says this will improve. "Local information and local search is something of huge value and we're working on improving the local aspect of our search results."

He adds that the traffic example isn't far away. "In Japan there are a lot of traffic sensors in the metropolitan area that already give you that information. We're working with several partners on improving local traffic information, and to improve local information in general. If you go into Google Maps today and you search for a specific route, the product has improved a lot: we add traffic routes, we display train departure times depending on your location, and so on. We're really improving a lot there.

"Personally I think that local information is going to become even more important in the future. If you search for a product – for example, you say 'I want to buy some Adidas sneakers' – it might be good for you to know which online shops have the product. But if we can say that the shop around the corner also has them, that local aspect of search is something that we value."

Stoddart cites working examples of traffic monitoring via Live Maps in the US. "The US Live Maps site has great examples of this, where they have real-time flow data of traffic. You can say 'I'm going to leave to go to wherever. How long will it take me?' And it says 'If you leave at 9 o'clock it will take you two hours and if you leave at 10 o'clock it will take you one hour, so leave at 10 o'clock.' There's some brilliant semantic type search, plus some real time data working together." It's worked so well in the US, Stoddart says, that it's something that Microsoft is looking to bring to the UK, too.

Global Editor-in-Chief

After watching War Games and Tron more times that is healthy, Paul (Twitter, Google+) took his first steps online via a BBC Micro and acoustic coupler back in 1985, and has been finding excuses to spend the day online ever since. This includes roles editing .net magazine, launching the Official Windows Magazine, and now as Global EiC of TechRadar.