Google is seeking 'search without search', says VP Marissa Mayer
Google is working on a service that finds information before a user has even started looking for it.
Forget Google Instant, this is about pre-emptively pushing data at users before they know they need it, said Marissa Mayer, Google's VP of geographic and local services, who was speaking at the LeWeb internet conference in Paris this week.
Mayer said Google is looking at what she called "contextual discovery" as a way to evolve search - pushing information out to people before they've started to look for it, based on factors such as their web browsing history or current location.
"We're starting to play around with some new concepts in how to find information," she said. "Can we take location and a user's context and figure out what piece of information they need? It's kind of search without search.
She added: "The idea is to push information to people."
Mayer sees this push or pre-emptive search as a complement to traditional web browsing, perhaps living in a panel on a web browser offering users another way to discover relevant or timely data.
She said social recommendations will be a key part of this next generation of search - the company launched a Social Search feature in 2009 - while location-enabled mobile devices offer even more scope for Google to "figure out what the next most useful piece of information is" and push it out to the user.
"If you're sitting in a restaurant, can we pull up the menu? And can we pull up a menu that isn't the menu that the waiter would have just handed you, but a social menu - where you can see what other people have ordered, what other people like, how's it's been marked up," she said.
"I think there's a lot that can be done with using both explicit and implicit location information as well as user context," Mayer added.
Asked about Google's relative failure in social media, compared with the likes of social networking leviathan Facebook and social gaming giant Zynga, Mayer said it is an area where the company is seeking to improve in future.
"On the web there are four key platforms: search, video, social and mobile," said Mayer. "Google has gotten three out of the four really right and we're working hard on the fourth one. We're...
...really committed to it - we will do a good job."
Another development Google has on its to-do list for next year, according to Mayer, is adding location check-ins to services such as Google Maps and its Latitude software, which she admitted has only a relative small user base compared with rival location services such as Foursquare.
"Latitude is useful for smaller subset of people [than Foursquare]... there's probably only a handful of people who you want to know where you are at all times," she said.
Adding layers to Latitude to allow "both implicit and explicit expressions of location" – that is, user-controlled check-ins - is something Google wants to do, she said. "New layers are coming on top of it," she told Le Web. "We have a few places where it would be natural to put check-ins and so we're looking at where we want to wire those in."
Mayer also demoed some of the new features in Gingerbread, the latest iteration of Google's Android mobile OS platform, running on the new Google Nexus S smartphone, including dynamic map drawing and a 3D map layer that displays geometric building data and, when used in conjunction with the phone's compass, can help map users orient themselves at street level. The geometric buildings data feature currently covers 100 cities.
Mayer said Google has also improved the offline reliability of maps by using vectors to reduce the amount of data that has to be downloaded to the phone, enabling smoother panning and local caching on devices.
Discussing her role at Google, Mayer added: "We're trying to build a virtual mirror of the world at all times - so we've got Street View cars driving and planes flying... This is one of Google's big investments - to do a good job with information, with search, with a lot of these important pieces of the platform, we really need to make a big investment here."