Google shakes up search with new Wikipedia-like feature

Just months after rolling out a controversial personalized search feature, Google (s goog)  is shaking up its search pages once again. This time, the search giant is carving out a chunk of the site for “Knowledge Graph,” a tool that offers an encyclopedia-like package in response to a user’s query.

The idea is to get users to spend more time on Google and also to make the search engine offer a more human-like understanding of questions and context. “This is a critical first step towards building the next generation of search, which taps into the collective intelligence of the web and understands the world a bit more like people do,” Google said in a blog post announcing the new feature.

How It Works and When it will Appear

The most immediate thing Google searchers will notice is a big block on the right site of the page. For example, users who search for Frank Lloyd Wright will see the familiar list of ten blue webpage links but will also find biographical and contextual information:

Google’s Knowledge Graph also contains another key feature: it parses results to get at what users “really mean.”  For instance, it might try to anticipate whether a user searching for “long island” means the boozy drink or the place in New York. Or whether a “Taj Mahal” query refers to the structure, the singer or a local Indian restaurant.

Google shared an example of how a search for “Andromeda” might turn out. In this screenshot, the right side of the Google search page asks users if they mean the galaxy, the TV show or the Swedish rock band:

The information Google presents in its Knowledge Graph is Wikipedia-like in that it allows users to learn and discover. And like Wikipedia, it comes with an editing mechanism. If a user sees something they believe is inaccurate — perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday is wrong — they can tap a “report a problem” button, which flags the issue.

The Knowledge Graph will be unrolled this week across Google’s English sites, including on mobile ones. Google has already been testing it on small samples of users, a practice common among big Internet companies like Facebook and Google — the early reactions give them an opportunity to fine tune the product (sharp-eyed SearchEngineWatch noticed this on Monday).

Will People Like It?

Google’s last big shake up to its search pages occurred in January with the launch of “Search Plus Your World” in which Google peppered its results with information drawn from users’ interactions on Google+, Gmail and so on.

The changes went over like a lead balloon as users balked at Google’s latest attempt to drag them on to a social network they didn’t want to be on.

Reaction to the Knowledge Graph will likely be different as the feature is both less intrusive and more useful.

“It will increase serendipity,” said Google Product Manager, Jim Menzel, adding that the tool will make searching both more efficient and more rewarding. He cited an example of a family using the tool to consider a Six Flags visit by clicking on a parade of associated images. “What better way to decide whether to go to an amusement park than to flip through each individual ride?”

The real test, of course, will be whether the tool works as promised. In 2009, the company’s Labs division launched a product called “Google Squared” that was supposed to surface in-context information but it was defeated by even simple queries like “Mets third baseman.” Menzel suggested that Squared was just a “concept car” and Knowledge Graph is far more refined and ready for the big time.

There are also intriguing questions about Google’s newfound editorial role. The tool is all well and good for uncontentious searches like “Frank Lloyd Wright.” But what about, say, “Palestine” or “Barack Obama Birth Certificate” or “evolution”?

The text in the examples above appears slung directly from Wikipedia, so that approach may help Google avoid at least some of the inevitable political attacks.

Google’s Strategy

Google’s move is intriguing in no small part because the new Knowledge Graph appears to be placed smack dab where the company’s ads usually appear. Recall that the right side of the page is where the company’s golden goose — also known as AdWords — usually resides. Ads also appear directly above the regular search results, however, and those won’t be impacted by the new feature.

Google’s decision to rezone this prime real estate is likely part of a larger effort to get people to spend more time on the page. Whereas in the past, the company was an “in-n-out” style service, the new feature may make Google more like Facebook where users reportedly spend an average of 18 minutes per visit.

The Knowledge Graph may also provide new advertising opportunities on the local commerce front. When it presents a variety of Wikipedia-style entries, the company can include local options too. For example, a search for “Kings” may yield the hockey team, the basketball team  — or Kings Pub down the street.

Danny Sullivan, a search industry veteran and expert on Google’s twists and turns, has his usual definitive take about the new features over at Search Engine Land.