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At Searchology, Google unveils new search features

New tools let users fine-tune their queries and show results in more structured ways. The Wonder Wheel, the spreadsheet function Google Squared and the Sky Map phone app are announced.

May 13, 2009|David Sarno

Google Inc. engineers on Tuesday unveiled a series of features showing that online searches are starting to yield much more than a bland list of text-based answers.

According to Udi Manber, Google's vice president of search engineering, the company has leaped over many of the practical hurdles that dogged search in its early days, such as how to reliably store and access mind-bending volumes of digital information.

"We're now in a position where these problems are much easier for us, so we can concentrate on starting to understand," Manber said during Searchology, an event at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., devoted to showing off advances.

With the new features, Google will pay closer attention to the way users would like to view their information, offering more control over the type and flavor of search results.

A search option called Wonder Wheel generates a visual concept map, pointing to related topics. A search for "Lakers" generated a wheel whose spokes included "lakers roster," "lakers rumors" and "lakers rockets."

The Wonder Wheel and other search power tools can be found by clicking the link that says "Show options" after executing a Google search.

With Google Squared, a service launching this month, users can order up an instant spreadsheet on any topic -- composed of neatly tabulated information that Google plucks from across the Web at lightning speed.

In response to a search for "small dogs," for instance, Squared popped out a grid organized by breed, including photos, descriptions and statistics on each type of pooch.

"It's a very, very hard computer science problem to try to take the unstructured Web and build it into this type of structured information," said Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products.

Trying to wow its audience with a final search-related tool, Google showed off a new mobile phone application called Sky Map.

Using a smartphone's Global Positioning System capability, compass and accelerometer, Sky Map can draw a real-time map of the stars that takes into account exactly where users are standing -- and even which direction they are facing.

John Taylor, a Google engineer who worked on the application, demonstrated by trying to find Mayer's star sign (Gemini; her birthday is soon).

He rotated the phone gingerly until a red target circle on the screen showed it had locked on to the distant constellation.

"Many happy returns," he said.

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david.sarno@latimes.com

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