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SAN JOSE, Calif.—In a bold and potentially risky move, Google is making dramatic changes to the way it helps hundreds of millions of people find information on the Internet.


Executives Wednesday unveiled a new master search engine at the company’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. In addition to pointing people to Web sites, Google will now steer them to digital books, movies, images, news articles and maps that could contain the answers they are looking for.


The new search engine at google.com, whose features are going to be slowly rolled out over the coming months, combines half a dozen search engines that were previously used only by a handful of cognoscenti who knew where to find them on Google’s sprawling Web site.


Marissa Mayer, vice president of search and user experience, said the change represented the first step toward “universal search”—the ability for Google’s computers to sift through digital content of all kinds in response to queries typed into the search box on Google’s famous home page.


A request for the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. provides an example of what this means. While the old search engine linked to Web sites about King, the new search engine provides the text of the speech and a video of the civil rights icon making the speech as the top results.


Another example: a request for “framing a wet bar” returns a digital version of the book, “The Complete Photo Guide to Home Improvement,” in addition to a link to www.askthebuilder.com.


A seemingly simple improvement, the new search engine required a wholesale upgrade of Google’s computer infrastructure. “It’s important to recognize that universal search is hard,” Mayer said, noting Google began the project in 2001.


Peter Norvig, director of research, likened it to rewiring a house, though in this case the house is represented by Google’s far-flung network of data centers, which are being switched over one at a time starting in the United States and other English-speaking countries.


“It will be awhile before everybody uses it,” Norvig said.


Ben Schachter, an analyst with UBS Investment Research, said the improvements could help Google increase its lead over rivals like Yahoo and Microsoft.


Greg Sterling, of Sterling Market Intelligence, said a suggestion by Mayer that Google could begin to incorporate display advertisements in its search results could have a “huge” impact on its business.


According to comScore, a market research firm, Google currently controls about 48 percent of the U.S. search market, compared to Yahoo’s 28 percent and Microsoft’s 11 percent.


But there is also the risk that Google’s users won’t like the new search engine.


That was Irene Au’s top concern, when she left Yahoo to head up Google’s user interface efforts eight months ago. `The most important thing is that it’s not disruptive to users,” Au said.


Little things, like where to place a feature that recommends a more refined query, were repeatedly tested with focus groups—and in some cases on large groups of oblivious Google users whose reactions to various tweaks were closely monitored.


As part of the launch of the new search engine, Google is inviting users to participate in its improvement efforts by going to www.google.com/experimental and trying out some current experiments such as a timeline view that lets someone type in a query like the “Apollo Space Program” and get back a timeline of significant events.


Co-founder Larry Page said he’s confident that users will like the new search engine, but if they don’t, Google has a back-up plan. “We will just switch it back,” he said.

Tagged as: google | internet search
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