The Evolution of Search Results into Query Portals

When you perform a search at a search engine, you usually see a list of links to web pages in response to your search.

Over the past few years, search engine have started showing a mix of other types of results, including images, links to related news stories or blog posts, videos, book and music search results, listings of reviews, maps and business location information, related search queries and query suggestions, stock charts, weather forecasts, and other non-web page listings.

This richer mixture of choices presented by search engines in response to searchers’ queries provides an often colorful and often useful set of options to someone searching for information or to fulfill some kind of task.

The query suggestions and refinements that searchers are offered are intended to help searchers with suggestions of other searches that might yield them more information. The mix of non-web page results are often referred to by search engines as blended or universal search results.

When Google officially launched their mix of blended search results in 2007, they issued a press released titled Google Begins Move to Universal Search, and they told us that:

Google’s vision for universal search is to ultimately search across all its content sources, compare and rank all the information in real time, and deliver a single, integrated set of search results that offers users precisely what they are looking for.

Beginning today, the company will incorporate information from a variety of previously separate sources – including videos, images, news, maps, books, and websites – into a single set of results. At first, universal search results may be subtle. Over time users will recognize additional types of content integrated into their search results as the company advances toward delivering a truly comprehensive search experience.

I wrote about one of the patents behind Google’s approach in Google Universal Search Patent Granted in November of 2008.

Both Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing also provide a mix of results from different sources in search results.

Search Results Becoming Portals?

A web portal has typically been a place where you could visit and find a wealth of information on different topics. One of the most popular these days is Yahoo, where you’re greeted with popular news stories as well as links to a wide variety of services and information resources. They also offer a search engine, but it’s only one of a number of services provided by the site. In start contrast is the home page of Google, where you see a search box on their home page, and little else. The front page of Microsoft’s Bing has evolved from its days as a more portal-like MSN to a more search oriented site like Google.

But, beyond the front pages of Google and Bing, we see a movement as I noted above, to a presentation of search results that include images, news, recent blog posts, and more that are much richer than a sparse listing of links to web pages. Some search results may only provide links to web sites, but others often give so many options that it can be hard to decide what to try to look at first.

A patent application published by Microsoft at the end of 2009 hinted at an evolution in search results that goes beyond blending into those results a mix of information from other types of search results. The document describes something referred to as “query portals.”

The patent application is:

Query-Driven Web Portals
Invented by Kaushik Chakrabarti, Surajit Chaudhuri, Venkatesh Ganti, Dong Xin, Sanjay Agrawal, and Arnd Christian Konig
Assigned to Microsoft
US Patent Application 20090327223
Published December 31, 2009
Filed: June 26, 2008

Abstract:

The described implementations relate to query portals. One technique analyzes search results generated by a web search engine responsive to a user search query. The technique also dynamically generates a query portal that lists the search results as well as entities identified from the search results.

In addition to providing search results for a specific query, we’re told that the search engine will also include “complementary information derived from the search results.”

For instance, someone searching for “Lord of the Rings” might be presented with a number of related topics in a way that makes it easy for that searcher to drill down upon areas that might interest them the most.

In the following screenshot from the patent, we’re shown a list of topics related to the “Lord of the Rings” at the top of the search results that include people such as the author J.R.R. Tolkien, the producer of the movies Peter Jackson, as well as actors from the movie. We’re also provided with categories of related topics including videos, products, and another topic that lists characters from the book.

An image from the patent filing showing a drill down menu providing options for additional searches and specific web pages involving an entity related to a searcher's query.

In the image above, categories and specific topics within those categories, related to the original search query “Lord of the Rings,” are taken from the search results, and presented in a way so that when you hover over one of the topics you are presented with search refinement options and suggested pages relevant to those topics.

The patent filing goes into some depth in describing how categories and topics from search results might be extracted, ranked, and presented. It’s worth drilling into and spending some time with if you’re concerned about what the search engine might present if and possibly when it may add a feature like this to the search results that we see.

What’s most interesting to me is the idea of search results evolving from a set of links and results from other types of search repositories such as local search, image search, and so on, into a type of portal based upon a query typed in by a searcher.

The search results that we see are becoming more portal-like every day. Regardless of how sparse the front page of a site like Google or Bing might be, search results are becoming more complex and interesting, with an increasing number of options to draw the eyes and attention of viewers.

What might this mean to searchers and site owners?

If you’re a searcher, you might regret the loss of simplicity of search results. Interestingly, recent commercials from Microsoft call Bing a “decision engine” and show how too much information can cause “search overload.” The irony here is that this is Microsoft’s patent filing, and it has the potential to increase the number of options that a searcher is faced with dramatically. On the positive side, it may make it easier for searchers to find the information that they want to find.

If you’re a site owner, the process in this patent filing may mean that there are potentially more ways for a searcher to find your site if you fill information needs that your audience may have.

While this patent application is from Microsoft, I think it’s fair to say that we will continue to see search results from all of the major search engines become more portal-like in the future.

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37 thoughts on “The Evolution of Search Results into Query Portals”

  1. I wonder if everyone will really want these extended results? May depend on search type and results given. Maybe the search engines could offer a ‘classic’ view (10 blue links) as well as the more portal like results. Perhaps they could extend their ‘personalisation’ offerings into giving users some power over that decision.

  2. It’s a delicate balance between too much info and “I’m glad they showed me that.” As search engines and searchers continue to evolve I think we’ll see more specialization (shopping vs. academic research vs. entertainment). Google’s piece of the pie will inevitably be smaller, or at least broken up into its own little pieces.

    Bill

  3. It’s interesting that this is a Bing application, because (regardless of what one may think about the quality of the output), I think Bing is moving toward query results that more resemble faceted search than Google’s universal search output.

    That is, Google has concentrated on pulling content from different specialty indexes – blog, news, video, etc. – and creating basically a matrix of search results. The Bing approach seems to be deriving more and more methodology from the semantic web – fetching different semantic components to populate their “query portal” rather than relying on discreet search indexes. We’ve seen some of this with Google, particularly with real-time (Twitter) search blocks, but not to the same extent. I think this represents an evolution in universal search/search portals of which we’re going to see more.

  4. Hi Neil,

    I’m actually a little surprised that we don’t see Microsoft or Yahoo offering a “Labs” type testing area for searchers who might be willing to experiment with alternative type search applications, much in the way that Google does with their experimental labs.

    Having said that, neither Google nor Yahoo nor Microsoft provide a way to only see web pages – if they are going to serve blended or universal search results for a particular query, then you have no choice but to see those. It might be an interesting thing to add to search preferences, so that you could set whether or not you might see the additional topics and dropdown menus.

    I’m not sure that they would allow searchers to exclude those portal-like features though, if they decide to start showing them.

  5. Hi bill,

    Interesting thoughts.

    I think part of the reason why the search engines started showing pictures and videos and products in the main web search results was because people rarely clicked upon the tabs that offer only those more specialized search results. The portal dropdowns, like in the image in my post seems to be a way of providing some additional expansions of possible query refinements and suggested pages that are only seen if you hover over one of those topics. In other words, it appears that they tried to balance showing more information without taking up too much space on a search results page.

    I hope that they do decide to move forward with this approach.

  6. Hi Aaron,

    Those are good points.

    What I like most about this approach is that Microsoft is populating the additional topics with information taken from the actual results for the query searched for by the searcher. I think we’ll continue to see blended results from Bing in the same way that Google and Yahoo provide them, but these query portal features will be an addition that adds reasonable alternatives, and could influence what might be included.

    I think it’s an evolution as well, and it’s possible that Bing’s universal results may be influenced more by the topics and concepts from those search results as well – it is evolutionary, and very interesting.

  7. As you’ve mentioned, this has its own advantages and disadvantages. It might be harder now look for something detailed that you’re searching for. But, it would be useful if you are really searching for information regarding the topic. Well, as with every new thing, we can get used to it once it’s been there a long time. After all, all we can do is to go with the flow with regards to Google.

  8. When universal search first started appearing I thought it would be interesting, but for the most part it’s watered down the quality of search results for me.

    If I’m looking for a video say, I’d rather just click the link for video search. Same for news, images, etc. Seeing everything in the genral results only makes it harder for me to find what I want on the general results page.

    I actually like how the screenshot in the patent looks, because it seems like it’s keeping the general results cleaner, while still providing quick access to refine the search or switch to a related search. I can’t say how useful I’d find it until I actually had a chance to use it, but from what can see here I think I’d prefer this to universal search, which I’ve never found useful at all.

  9. I find Google’s presentation more appealing than Yahoo’s but it would be a bit unfair since they are different services. The latter can be quite confusing and intimidating for those who are not very familiar with the site’s layout. Besides, most people who go to a search engine already have in mind what they want to look for. Portals on the other hand are a great way to suggest to someone who really doesn’t have anything to look for in the first place. =D

  10. I find it quite ironic that in the late 90s towards the end of the ‘portal wars’ the prevalent view was that search was, at best, a secondary activity of minor consequence.

    Ten years on and the increasingly universal search means the biggest portal is emerging before our very eyes out of a company that developed from doing the thing that the portals derided as broken.

  11. I prefer Google current result where you can choose to extend the result in images, videos, books etc, give an option to show or hide. If all these result put together in one place, it will be very confusing.
    I agree with Bing semantic approach as an alternative searching method, I’m sure they are still in experiment stage to get a better search result.

  12. Hi Andrew,

    I think this approach actually increases something called discoverability, because it opens up potential topics to explore that might not be quite as evident from a simple set of links to web pages, even if those may have a few news articles and images blended in.

    And the patent filing is from Microsoft rather than Google, so it’s not just a matter of going with the flow. Is it the kind of thing that might be innovative enough to take some traffic away from Google? Possibly.

  13. Hi Steven,

    I’m in agreement with you regarding Universal Search. While blog and news content might be somewhat fresh, I’m not sure how much some of the other information blended into search results often is.

    The best part of it for me is that the portal dropdowns contain information gathered from the search results themselves, so they have the potential to help you find information from results that might not be in the top ten, increasing the diversity of what you could see – if you find yourself not satisfied with the other results. And it is a cleaner interface.

  14. Hi Eric,

    I’ve always considered portals to be a useful alternative to searching, especially when you have some information about a topic, but don’t know enough to come up with queries that are directly on point. People may have some idea of what they are looking for, but often don’t have a idea of the right words to use to find it. Something like Microsoft’s approach might help.

  15. Hi Dick,

    It’s interesting how attitudes towards search and portals flip-flop. In the Mid-90s, MSN was much more portal than search, and they delayed building a search engine for years. Now that they’ve developed some interesting approaches to search, they come out with a patent filing about “query portals.”

    And Google, Yahoo, and Bing have all moved closer towards being portals with pictures, news, blog, image, book, music, scholar, twitter, and video results in response to some queries.

    The times have changed. Who would have imagined in the year 2000 that Google and Apple would be at loggerheads over offering smartphones?

  16. Hi ignandy,

    I’m hoping that we see Bing offer the portal like features described in the patent filing, but even if we don’t, I think blended or Universal Search is a step on behalf of the search engines becoming more portal like. I don’t know if Google would offer the option of hiding some of the vertical search results that they blend into Web searches.

    I suspect that there are a lot of people at Google who spend a lot of time experimenting with making small changes to search results to see what kinds of impacts those might have on searches.

  17. Hi Bill

    Looking at the patent, I feel that a lot of task is dependent upon the content developer and how he is going to present the information semantically and natuarally with factual data.As far as the Search result patent is concerned, they have to beleive in progressive disclosure, a good point in usability.ie., slowly disclosing the basic information and then into minutae. This is how I beleive Search results should be moving towards. Also, I think it may produce ‘inforamtion overload’ for the searchers. Nice post bill as ever!

  18. I personally find the extended results annoying. If I’m searching for images or videos or what have you I’ll specify that in the search terms, I’d rather just see a complete list of related results.

  19. Hi Shameer,

    Thanks. I do agree that that pages that are well structured and contain great content can benefit from the approach described in this patent filing.

    Interesting idea about “progressive disclosure.” I’m not sure that is quite the term that I would use to describe the way that this query portal approach allows a searcher to explore the query portal elements described more deeply, but it does fit. By showing those additional topics, and allowing people to explore them more deeply using dropdowns, the patent avoids presenting too much information at once, which may hinder that “information overload.

  20. Hi Josh,

    It sounds like your referring to the blended or universal search results that we’ve been seeing increasingly in search results.

    I do think there’s a point when those can seem too much. How many assumptions should be made when someone searches for a musicians name, for instance? Does it make sense to not only return web pages, but also some images, and videos, and music search results? Are the search results better or worse when they do so?

  21. I think back to how Ask 3D used to do a really good job of blended and vertical search. A real pity that they went back to the stock standard 10-pack.

    I generally enjoy a blended result because often when looking for information on a topic I’m not quite clear on what the question is. If nothing else, by seeing similar results I can rephrase my search.

  22. Hi Robert,

    Ask doe do some interesting things, such as the binoculars view, which provides a snapshot of web pages, which gives you a preview of a page before you visit.

    I personally like blended searches, and I’d like to see the query portal approach that Microsoft describes in this patent filing along with them. Between the two, search results pages are becoming more portal like.

  23. I don’t really like how advanced the search engines are. If I want to look for something in the shopping category, I will. If I want to look for an image rather than an article, I will. I would rather not have the search engines showing me information from every vertical but that is where it’s at I suppose.

  24. As already mentioned by others, sometimes these blended results are simply not desirable – it should certainly be possible to switch to a ‘classic’ view as mentioned by another commenter. I think it depends what ‘phase’ of browsing you are in – if you are literally just surfing around absorbing information then seeing a image or video or whatever related to your search query may be of interest. However, if you are trying to find something specific I think these things may get in the way. Also, one comment re the Yahoo portal and Google’s very different appearance, it’s worth mentioning that with igoogle (google.com/ig) you get the news, YouTube things etc and can customize your own ‘Google home page’ so you can make it more like Yahoo if you wish to.

  25. Hi Jeremy,

    Interesting points.

    I have the sense that the search engines are unlikely to stop showing blended results, or to provide a “classic” view. Being able to show images and video and book search and maps and all of the other vertical search results within web search results provides a way of using those data sources, when it might be appropriate and provide a good experience for searchers. It may be that those types of results do get in the way when you have a specific situational task at hand to fulfill.

    Google’s personalized home page can be a lot more portal like – good point.

  26. Hi Sarah,

    I think one of the concerns that they search engines have had, after doing a great deal of usability testing, is that people often don’t click on one of the tabs to do a search within a vertical such as shopping or news, even if it might be a better source of information than web search.

    We don’t get blended results for every query that we perform, and we shouldn’t for many of them. I guess one of the challenges that search engines face is knowing when it might be a good idea to add blended results for some queries and not for others, and trying to avoid showing news or videos or images or other types of results when they aren’t helpful or useful.

  27. Hi James,

    I’m not sure that there’s much you can do about that. It’s likely that they will become even more advanced in the future.

  28. That seems like a very fine-line to balance. As a search engine, how do you what “too much” info is to show a searcher vs. “not enough”? I can see the benefits, for sure, but it seems quite difficult to implement correctly. We’ll see. :)
    Kind regards,
    Jason Sandor

  29. Hi Jason,

    It is a balancing act, determining how the presentation of search results might impact the ability of people to use them and find the information that they are looking for. I do think that the ability to explore related topics through dropdowns, or even the expanded abstracts that Bing now shows when you hover over a search result can be helpful. There’s a lot of talk recently about whether or not Google’s new search result interface has negatively impacted the amount of visits to many sites recently, and it’s possible that they have. We can’t take topics like that for granted.

  30. This will definitely reshape the ways SEO is done, and provide much more challenge for the community, though it may be quite fun ;)

  31. Hi Clinton,

    Search results are getting richer, and providing more information inspite of a desire on the parts of the search engines to present those results in ways that aren’t cluttered, and don’t interfere with searchers abilities to find what they want.

    By offering “related” results in those search results in creative ways, the search engines are transforming the way that SEO is done, forcing people optimizing for search engines to consider how a search engine might present results, and what it might offer in terms of query refinements and alternative searches. It does make things interesting.

  32. I really don’t like the extend results. I find them annoying.
    I just want to see a list of results not images or videos

  33. Hi Alex,

    Bing hasn’t started showing dropdowns like that yet, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t.

    I think we’re going to see images and videos when the search engines think we might want them, regardless of whether we really do or not.

  34. Hi Alex,
    I agree with Bill about the fact that bing might start showing dropdowns. It all depends on the evolution of SERPS. In most cases I think that eventually it will be a multimedia interface in which you choose from different segments. E.g. video, news, serps, etc but all in one interface not like google’s current tab/page layout. I could see Bing doing this first though for some reason

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