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

Conclusion

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.

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17 thoughts on “Google Universal Search Patent Granted”

  1. Wow, Google Universal has really been mixing things up lately. I’m seeing some results that feature 4 or videos in 1st page results. Also seeing “blog posts related to” appearing more frequently on page #1. I have not yet seen the “products” category getting injected into results yet, but seeing maps, news, blogs, images, books, and video, on a growing basis. Exciting to see changes.

  2. Hi Mike,

    It is exciting. I believe that I’ve been seeing more results from different document categories, too.

    I don’t know if that’s because the patent has been granted, or if it is just a natural evolution of where Google has been going.

    Either way, I think it’s a good thing to see, and I hope that it has more people thinking about how they can use things like video and images more to present what they want to on their web pages.

  3. I believe that Google are already testing something similar on http://www.searchmash.com. I think that SearchMash lead them to the following statement, regarding their new patent:

    Although this technique gives users a great deal of control in directing their search queries, a practical problem with this technique is that a large majority of users tend to ignore the category tabs (they have those in the flash version of searchmash.com), resulting in their search query being directed to the default category.

  4. Hi Svetoslav,

    Thanks for your comment.

    Searchmash is an interesting site, giving Google a chance to experiment with some of the technology that they have developed. One thing that is really interesting about it is that it started out close to the same time that Universal Search was introduced. :)

    The interface for Searchmash is much closer to the interface shown in the images from the Universal Search patent than the interface presently being used at Google for Universal Search.

    The Universal Search patent was originally filed in 2003, before Google launched searchmash, so it may be more likely that the inventors of this patent were looking at the log files from Google to see how many people where actually using those tabs.

    The Official Google Blog post that I linked to above tells us that Google was thinking about Universal Search all the way back in 2001. It took them a while to develop the idea, but it seems like a good one.

    Data from searchmash may not have influenced the creation of Universal Search, but Search Mash may be very much influenced by the patent.

  5. Hi William,

    I completely agree that searchmash.com is influenced by the patent. To me it looks like a good proving ground before it goes mainstream.

    Undoubtedly Search Mash took advantage of Google’s experience. Back then they might have began testing a different approach towards search results with this project.

    Google are quite persistent, however do not rush in to major changes over night. Back in 2003 Universal Search might have looked a bit too far fetched, however people might find it useful now. I know I like searchmash.com, but I don’t use it as often because I try to be where the majority is.

    I look forward to see the first “universal serps” :)

  6. Hi modeshopper,

    It’s difficult to tell exactly how much this patent covers, since the idea of blending and displaying search results from different database sources with different kinds of content has been around for years. The buttons for different kinds of searches, above the main search box is actually something that Universal Search tries to replace, by incorporating those kinds of results into the main search interface, so that people don’t have to use the buttons.

  7. This is all well and good, as well as timely, but there is still only so much information on a search engine results page that a person can take in without being overloaded.

    Along with the focus on including all of this information in search engine results should be a focus on the layout and organization of these pages.

    It seems to me that the current layout used by most search engine results now will not fit the bill going forward with things like universal search.

  8. Hi Peoplefinder,

    Information overload is potentially a very big problem, The Official Google Blog had an interesting post on how Google conducts field studies (The Art of the Field Study) about their search results a few days ago that was interesting.

    While we might see Google describe different ways of inserting more information on to a page in patents like this one, it does look like Google is paying attention to the way that people react to changes to search results very carefully.

  9. WOW, this is huge. not sure if everyone realizes how big the impact of this ruling will be. It completely destroys the ability for ask.com or yahoo.com to supply mixed media search results inlcuding images, videos, and more which they are currently doing. It may even allow google to go after these companies for damages.

  10. Hi charlotte seo,

    I’m not completely sold on the idea that this patent will prevent other search engines from presenting a mix of media types of a search results page in some kind of blended fashion.

    For example, if I go to ask.com and enter a search for spider-man, I get a good mix of different kinds of media:

    http://www.ask.com/web?q=spider-man&search=&qsrc=0&o=0&l=dir

    News and blog results
    tv listings
    Q&A suggestions
    Images next to web page and news entries.

    Is what they are doing infringing upon Google’s Patent? I’m not sure.

    Would Google try to take this granted patent and exclude other search engines from blending mixed media into the search results that they display? I’ve gone into detail on what the description of the patent says, but we really need to look at the section titled “Claims” in the patent, to see how closely what Google has claimed in the patent is protected by the patent. Interesting question. :)

  11. Hi Charles,

    Thanks!

    It can fun to speculate about how much Google (or any of the other search engines) will use of the techniques and methods and systems that they describe in the patents that they apply for, and it’s even more enjoyable to see them take something from one of the patents and flesh it out pretty closely to what the patent describes.

    That doesn’t happen with every patent filing, but it does happen with some of them, like the ones on Google Personalized Search and Google Web History.

    I think that Universal Search and Personalized Search should be a pretty interesting together, and blending results for Desktop search could be interesting as well. Lots to look forward to.

    Hope that you and your family have a great new year.

    Bill

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