How Google Might Let you Shop by Camera Phone

A few months ago, I stopped at a store to search for a new phone. The place I stopped at offered a couple of dozen different models of phones with different features, and I narrowed my search down to three or four that listed features on their boxes that sounded interesting. Usually, I’ll look online before I buy something like this, but I needed a new phone, and wanted to get one quickly.

I pulled out my mobile phone in the middle of the shopping aisle, and started to search for reviews of the choices of phones in front of me. It would have been great if I could just take a picture of them, and had more information about them come up automatically, including reviews and alternative prices elsewhere so that I could compare costs as well.

A patent application from Google describes a way of using a mobile phone to take pictures of items, and sending them to the search engine to have it search through Google Product Search as well as other web sites, to find prices and reviews and other information about those items, and make a purchase online if you would like to. The images could be of a shirt that a friend is wearing, or a bicycle that you see parked on a street, or a package on a store shelf.

The search could be based upon the actual image itself, as well as words that might appear on a box for the image or other information. The information that you receive could include such things as technical specifications, nutritional value for food items, country of origin, prices from a number of vendors, and more. If the phone was GPS enabled, Google might see that I was in the middle of a specific store, and look up the online catalog of the store to show me that item and other items offered by the store.

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Google Search Synonyms Are Found in Queries

How often do search synonyms make a difference in searches at Google?

When someone searches the Web, a challenge they face is using the right words as a query in searches to find what they are looking for.

Search engines rank pages based on the prominence of terms from a query appearing on pages. If a searcher doesn’t use the right keywords, they may miss the information that they might like to find. Search engines may decide to show pages with search synonyms instead of the query terms someone searched with, if those search synonyms show results for the meaning that searcher intended to find.

As a searcher, if you see search results without the keywords you searched with but see words in your results similar in meaning to your query, Google may have returned those by using search synonyms to find the results you may see.

For example, a person looking for web hosting in the City of Ft. Wayne may type the query [Web hosting Fort Wayne] into a search engine. They may not see many pages about hosting in that location because the City is usually referred to as “Ft. Wayne” rather than “Fort Wayne.” I find myself often challenged by a similar problem when I look for information about Washington, D.C., or the District of Columbia, or DC. Alternative spellings of locations could be search synonyms because they mean the same place when used.

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What Did Search Look Like a Decade Ago?

Search engines have evolved tremendously since they first started appearing on the Web more than a decade ago.

I thought it might be fun to take a look back at some of popular search engines of yesterday, and spent a little time at the Internet Archive traveling back to the earlier days of search.

I remember visiting these pages when I put my first site up on the Web, and decided to share some screenshots. The dates after each search engines’ name are when the pages were captured by the Internet Archive.

October 22, 1996

The sister of a friend used to work at DEC, the company where AltaVista began, and one day she sent him an email with a link to the search engine they had launched the week before. He forwarded the email to me, and I found myself using Altavista for most of my searches for the next year or two.

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Microsoft on Navigational Search Queries and Best Match

When you visit a search engine, and type a word or phrase such as “Hilton,” or “ESPN,” or “Nature Conservancy,” into a search box, chances are that you want to visit the home page for Hilton Hotels, or ESPN or the Nature Conservancy. If the pages for those sites show up at the top of search results, chances are that you will likely click on those and possibly not even look at the search results under them.

At least, that’s what the search engines are guessing.

We’ve seen a number of papers and patent filings from search engines referring to queries like those as “navigational” search queries because searchers are using search engines as a way to navigate to those pages, instead of researching them to find more information about them.

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How Search Engines Might Divine the Intent behind Regional Queries vs. Global Queries

If you search for “pizza,” or “movie times,” or “division of motor vehicles,” there’s a chance that you might want to find information about where to get pizza near you, or to find what films that local movie theatres or showing, or find out more about driver’s licenses in your area. This is true even if you don’t include a specific location with your search.

The query term you used in your search might be considered to be a “regional sensitive query,” because you want to find information associated with a specific geographical location. That geographic location might be on a country or province level, within a specific region, at a state level, or even in a more narrow area such as within a specific city.

How would a search engine decide whether a specific search term might be “regionally sensitive,” or be a “global query” and have no specific local intent behind it?

A recent patent application from Yahoo explores a number of ways that look at user data related to searches to attempt to identify whether a query is regionally sensitive or doesn’t have some kind of location-based intent behind it.

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