How Google May Trigger Answer Box Results for Queries

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So, one of the big questions in SEO these days is why some queries end up triggering Answer Boxes in search results, and others don’t.

A Recent Bloomberg article explores how Google might use machine learning to answer questions, titled, Google’s New AI Can Answer Dumb IT Questions or Tell You the Meaning of Life. I came across the article after having read a patent application at Google that covered similar ground.The point behind the patent was to identify sources of answers to queries, that are in the shape of Answer Boxes, as seen in this search result:

duke-blue-devils

As this patent application tells us, sometimes searchers are looking for answers to their queries, rather than a list of URLs:

Users of search engines are often looking for an answer to a specific question, rather than a listing of resources. For example, users may want to know what the weather is in a particular location, what the definition of a particular word is, how to convert between two time zones, or the product of multiplying two numbers. An answer box is a user interface element including a formatted presentation of content that is responsive to the query. For example, if the user’s query refers to weather in a particular location, a weather answer box can include a forecast of weather in the particular location.

So the purpose behind this patent is to find sources of information, or as it calls them, “resources” that are associated with answer box topics within a set of search results, and it might do that by parsing the resource according to “information from a publisher of the resource or by using a classifier or other system trained using machine learning techniques.”

The many different aspects of this patent described here are the works of the inventors listed with the name of the patent application below.

The process described in the patent, in part, may look like:

(1) Receive a query
(2) Receive search results responsive to the query,
(3) Determine search results that might be associated with an answer box topic identified by the search result
(4) Provide the search results, along with an answer box precursor for the first answer box topic, wherein the answer box precursor includes information that defines an answer box.

An Answer Box Precursor defines an answer box and may provide a template or script, to which specific values are added, it could also include multimedia. This is what determines what an answer box result ends up looking like on a search result page at Google. Here are a number of steps that may be involved in that process:

(1) Determining that a search result is associated with an answer box topic comprises: for each search result, accessing an index of search results and determining whether a resource referred to by the result is annotated in the index with an answer box topic.

(2) Determining that the first search result is associated with the first answer box topic comprises: for each search result, parsing a resource identified by the search result for answer box topics according to information from a publisher of the resource. The actions further include indexing a plurality of resources to an index; and for each resource, parsing the resource for answer box topics according to information from a publisher of the resource and annotating the resource in the index with any answer box topics identified by the parsing.

(3) Determining that a second search result is associated with another answer box topic, and providing search results along with an answer box precursor for the first answer box topic comprises selecting the first answer box topic based on the first search result having a higher ranking position relative to the second search result in the plurality of search results.

(4) Determining that a second search result may be associated with another answer box topic, and providing the search results along with an answer box precursor for the first answer box topic comprises selecting the first answer box topic based on one or more strength of association scores for the first and second search results.

(5) The actions further include obtaining the answer box precursor for the first answer box topic using a mapping between many answer box topics and answer box precursors.

(6) The actions further include receiving the answer box precursor for the first answer box topic from the first publisher. The answer box precursor includes content provided by the first publisher for the answer box. The answer box precursor includes code for obtaining content from a publisher server for the first publisher.

(7) The answer box is a user interface element including a formatted presentation of content. Determining that the first search result is associated with the first answer box topic comprises analyzing the first resource using predefined information regarding the structure of the first resource or a resource locator for the first resource.

(8) The first search result is associated with the first answer box topic comprises identifying one or more ads associated with the first resource and determining that at least one of the ads is associated with the first answer box topic.

(9) Receiving the query comprises receiving the query from a user device, and providing the search results comprises sending a document including the search results to the user device.

(10) Determining that the first search result is associated with the first answer box topic comprises using entity-extraction techniques to extract the first answer box topic from the first resource.

Advantages Described in the patent

(1) Answer boxes may be presented with search results, that are more likely to be relevant to a user’s search than answer boxes presented using conventional techniques that select answer boxes, which use only search queries.

(2) Relevant answer boxes may be triggered more frequently than in using a search system with conventional triggering techniques. If more than one answer box is relevant to a user’s search, search results can be analyzed to determine which answer boxes are most relevant to the user’s search. For example, for a query that may potentially relate to multiple topics, the search results for the query can be analyzed to determine which topic is most likely relevant to the user’s search.

(3) Answer boxes can be personalized to particular users by triggering answer boxes based on personalized search results.

The patent is:

Triggering Answer Boxes
Invented by Tal Cohen, Ziv Bar-Yossef, Igor Tsvetkov, Adi Mano, Oren Naim, Nitsan Oz, Nir Andelman, Pravir K. Gupta
Assigned to: Google
US Patent Application 20150169750
Published June 18, 2015
Filed: May 27, 2011

Abstract

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, for enhancing search results. In one aspect, a method includes receiving a query. A plurality of search results responsive to the query are identified. The search results are analyzed to determine that at least a first search result is associated with a first answer box topic. The search results are provided along with an answer box precursor for the first answer box topic.

Answer Boxes Triggered by Conventional Search Techniques

On a query for the Duke University Football Team under the name “duke blue devils,” The search Results may contain an answer box and two search results, which are all responsive to the query. The answer box may be based upon the search results. It could contain scores of football games played by the Duke University football team, and might show an answer box showing football scores even though the query does not explicitly indicate an interest in football. The search engine may analyze those search results to decide whether or not to determine whether to show an answer box for football as opposed to one for basketball or another sport, the search engine analyzes the search results.

A search Results involving the Football team may trigger an answerbox involving the football tean for this query.
A search Results involving the Football team may trigger an answerbox involving the football tean for this query.

This analysis could be done using fairly conventional search techniques. So, a conventional search techniques could identify results for the Duke football team as being relevant during the football season, and then results for the Duke basketball team, being more relevant during the basketball season. Because of this, a top search result is related to the Duke football team, and the search engine triggers an answer box for football scores. Analysis of the search results enables the search engine to trigger “answer boxes for football scores during football season and answer boxes for basketball scores during basketball season.”

Customization of Answers Based upon Personalization

Search Results could be customized to a particular user, based on their specified preferences or search history. Similarly to an answer box topic being triggered by conventionally search methods, an answer box may be “selected using the customized search results can also be customized to a particular user.”

Pre-Annotation of Associated Answer-Box Topics

The search results may be analyzed for answer box topics, by looking to see if any topics are associated with search results. The patent tells us that, “Example answer box topics that a search system could support include sports, sports teams, sports players, television shows, movies, celebrities, weather, and finance.”

Multiple Answer Box Topic

It’s possible that the search engine might identify answer box topics that are associated with more than one of the search results. The one matching the highest ranking search result, associated with an answer box topic may be selected to be displayed. That could be based on “the number of search results associated with the answer box topic.”So, if the first answer box topic is associated with one search result, and the second is associated with two search results, the search system might choose the second result because “it is associated with more search results than the first answer box topic.”

Answer Box Precursors

The patent defines and describes what an Answer Box Precurser is, by telling us that it may include “formatting information or content or both, such as a template or a script, to which particular values are added, or code that obtains particular values when executed. An answer box precursor may include a multimedia object, e.g., a digital image or video.”

For example, someone publishing information about “Duke football” may do so to sources of information on the publisher’s server at goduke.com on a web page available there.

6) The system provides the search results and the answer box precursor (step 212). For example, if the query is received from a program on a user computer, the system may send the answer box precursor to the user computer so that the user computer can present the answer box in the program along with the search results.

Repository of Answer Box Topics

When search results are returned in response to a query, the results for that query are checked to see if any of them are associated with answer box topics, which are stored in a repository of content that contain answers to those queries. The patent tells us that, “Some answer box topics relate to content that can may be computed rather than read from a data source; such as mathematical formula, sunrise/sunset times, and so on. Some answer box topics relate to data gathered by a system administrator and stored in, e.g., a database.”

Answer Box Engine

This search system uses an answer box engine, which exists to obtain answer boxes for answer box topics.

The answer box engine has an Answer box selector, which analyzes resources for answer box topics. The selector decides when a resource should be associated with an answer box topic from the answer box topics repository. The selector may use a range of techniques to make such a decision, for instance, by parsing a resource according to information provided by someone who published that information by looking at “information provided by a publisher of the resource, e.g., a page template or schema.”

For example, information might be chosen from specific domains. So, the selector may be configured for a web site at nbaplayers.com. Given a resource in search results in response to a query, may have a resource address of “http://nbaplayers.com/player/Joe_Random,” the selector could determines that the resource is associated with an answer box topic for the player “Joe Random.”

The patent also tells us that the search system may use “machine learning techniques to configure the selector.” So, it might train a classifier using a set of resources associated with various answer box topics, e.g., using any of the other techniques for analyzing resources mentioned in this specification. Those may be used as a “labeled set of examples for supervised or reinforcement learning; alternatively, other methods, e.g., unsupervised or semi-supervised learning techniques can be applied.”

The kinds of resources used to analyze resources for answer box topics could also use:

  • Metadata tags,
  • Titles, and
  • Other information indicative of topics for a web page.
  • Contextual text on a page, such as a caption for an image,
  • Metadata for that image,
  • Text of a web page including the image
  • Advertisements associated with a resource for answer box topics,
  • Log file information about queries that cause a resource to appear in search results.
  • Entity-extraction techniques to analyze resources for answer box topics, such as linguistic grammar-based techniques, statistical models (e.g., based on training data), and other techniques.
Topics of Ads could influence what content shows up in response to a query as an answer box topic.
Topics of Ads could influence what content shows up in response to a query as an answer box topic.

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21 thoughts on “How Google May Trigger Answer Box Results for Queries”

  1. Very interesting post, Bill, due to the amount of new concepts involved.
    In this patent, if I’m not mistaken, we can see Knowledge Vault working hard. It’s a good example to see the difference between Knowledge Vault and Knowledge Graph.
    There is no doubt that a new generation of SERPs is coming, with the possibility of multiple answer boxes and the interesting concept of ‘personalized answer boxes’.

  2. This is Very interesting post,that a new generation of SERPs is coming.I like this post

  3. Hi Sergio,

    There was a lot to this patent, and the matching of search results with answer box topics. The idea of personalized answer boxes was good to see in the patent

  4. Thank you, Shari,

    I was fortunate in that the inventors listed on this patent presented their invention in a way that was easy to understand and share with others. I learned a lot from reading this patent, and it sounds like I did a good job of sharing that information – thanks for the positive feedback, it’s very much appreciated.

  5. Hey Bill,

    There is no doubt that the majority of searches in Google actually needs direct answers rather than a bunch of links pointing to somewhere into nowhere. Well, with this patent though, if it is done right (with thorough consideration and review) will definitely have a big impact when it comes to web search. Though Google has already started it’s implementation, there is no doubt that this proposal is far from being complete. Anyway, can’t wait for the day where this particular patent will be fully in action.

  6. Is it true that answer boxes upsetting website owners because they prevent people from clicking around… thereby “blocking traffic?”

  7. Hi Meredith,

    People performing searches are still free to click upon the results that they want to see. Google is still showing them the snippet for results for other pages, that they can choose from.

  8. Hi Farrell john,

    It is interesting the way it is laid out by the patent’s inventors. It’s hard to say how much has been implemented, and if there are aspects of it that haven’t been yet.

  9. I am a bit fan of SEO but I really don’t have an idea how Google will work it out after the queries. I’m fortunate enough to find your article. Great presentation and explanation. This must be read by SEO’s. Thank you so much for sharing this patent, It’s highly appreciated.

  10. Hi Valerie,

    It’s interesting coming across something like this patent that seems to hold a lot of answers to questions about things like how Google might be coming up with answers to questions from queries right in search results.

  11. I’m fortunate enough to find your article. Great presentation and explanation. This must be read by SEO’s. Thank you so much for sharing this patent, It’s highly appreciated.

  12. It’ll be interesting to see how this will affect the SERPs as we move towards the future. Will this be something Google makes a permanent feature or will it be like the carousel feature that came and went?

  13. Hi Dan,

    It is appearing that Google does like to show off “Direct Answers” in response to queries, as they had mentioned in their 2014 10K Financial statement, and in a 2014 blog post by Eric Schmidt (http://googlepolicyeurope.blogspot.com/2014/09/we-built-google-for-users-not-websites.html) saying that sometimes providing searchers with an answer to questions they ask can be the best result. As he said there:

    “In each case we’re trying to get you direct answers to your queries because it’s quicker and less hassle than the ten blue links Google used to show. This is especially important on mobile where screens are smaller and typing is harder. Many specialized search services don’t like these improvements because they mean less traffic for them.”

    Instead of asking whether such answers might be like Google’s Carousel feature, it might be better to build an analogy to Google’s answer box results, where direct answers are from a separate fact repository at Google, much like answer box results might be from other repositories, such as news results, book results, local search results, music results, image results, or video results. As I called them in the title to this post, it’s about Google triggering answer box results in response to queries (the patent I wrote about in this post is titled “Triggering Answer Boxes.”

    Yes, it is my belief that Google will continue to show these “featured snippets” as they seem to have started referring to them as. See: Google Answer Boxes Officially Called Featured Snippets – http://www.thesempost.com/google-answer-boxes-officially-called-featured-snippets/

  14. does this mean google will be the one to answer question even when i have posted about it on my blog , if google will be answering the questions i guess my post will not be relevant in serp

  15. Hi Andrew,

    Google may choose your answers to showcase as the answers they show in response to a query, so then your answer might be seen as very relevant to that query.

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