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June 1, 2011, 11:30 a.m.

Eric Schmidt: Google wants to get so smart it can answer your questions without having to link you elsewhere

Last night, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt spoke at this year’s iteration of the D: All Things Digital conference. And while coverage of the talk focused on subjects like Google’s frenemies Apple and Facebook, Schmidt said something about search that I think is of interest to news organizations and other publishers.

The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg asked Schmidt about perceptions that Google’s search results are decreasing in quality, and whether there was an opening for a new search competitor to move into the space with a new innovation. Schmidt said that Google is constantly making improvements to its search algorithms, and then said this (it’s at 6:28 of the video above):

But the other thing that we’re doing that’s more strategic is we’re trying to move from answers that are link-based to answers that are algorithmically based, where we can actually compute the right answer. And we now have enough artificial intelligence technology and enough scale and so forth that we can, for example, give you — literally compute the right answer.

The video above is edited down from the full interview, so you can’t see what Schmidt said next, but according to Engadget’s liveblog, he next said something along the lines of “This is exactly what drove the acquisition of ITA,” the flight-data company that Google bought last year. That purchase allowed Google to get into the flight search business, so a search for “flights from Boston to Chicago” can now give you direct information at the top of the search results page on flights and schedules — information that Google plans to expand to direct price comparisons of the sort you’d see on Orbitz or Kayak.

The video on Google’s page about the acquisition notes that Google purchased ITA to get beyond “the traditional 10 blue links” of a Google search page and start providing the information directly.

That’s great — unless you’re behind one of those 10 blue links and you’ve been counting on Google sending you search traffic when someone searches for “flights from Boston to Chicago.”

The kind of shift Schmidt is talking about — from “link-based” to “algorithmically based” — could have a big impact on publishers in the business of providing answers to searchers questions. And not just the Demand Medias of the world who are attached at the neck to search — traditional publishers too.

There are already some questions Google feels confident enough about to answer directly, without sending the searcher off to another site. Try:

What’s the weather like in Cambridge today?

How is Apple’s stock price doing?

What time is it in Zanzibar?

What was the score in last night’s Mavs-Heat game? (Sadly — go Mavs!)

How many euros would $100 buy me?

How many people live in Canada?

What’s 73 times 14 minus 12?

In each case, Google gives you a direct answer before it presents you with links. Note that these sorts of questions deal in defined data sets — they’re numbers, mostly, or tied to a known set of geographic locations.

When it gets a query outside of those defined sets, it sometimes tries to use the artificial intelligence Schmidt is talking about. So try a search for population of boston instead of asking about Canada and this is what you get:

Google’s trying to figure it out, based how its AI has analyzed the data it’s spidered from around the web. (And it’s not a bad guess; the 2010 census said 617,594 people lived in Boston proper, with 7.6 million in the metropolitan area. Note that Google feels good enough about its guess to highlight mentions of “600,000” in the traditional search results.)

For now, Google’s ability to answer questions directly is bound by the sorts of things its algorithms can know. But they’ll get smarter — and Schmidt’s comments make clear it’s a strategic goal of the company to ensure they get smarter. So imagine a point in the near future where Google can give direct answers to questions like:

What time is Modern Family on?

Who are the Republicans running for president?

What red blouses are on sale at Macy’s?

Who’s the backup left tackle for the New Orleans Saints?

Those all seem achievable enough — that’s all structured data. But each one of those already starts to disrupt things news organizations try to provide, either through content or advertising.

And imagine, further down the line, that Google’s AI improves to the point where it can answer questions like these:

Did Dallas city council approve that zoning change last night?

Was the stimulus package too small to be effective?

What’s going to replace the Space Shuttle program?

Which is Terrence Malick’s best movie?

Did Osama bin Laden really use his wife as a human shield?

Is the new My Morning Jacket album any good?

Some of those are complex enough that Google probably wouldn’t be able to give a single definitive answer, the way it can with a database of census data. But it’s not hard to imagine it could provide a Metacritic-like look at the summary critical opinion of the My Morning Jacket record, or an analysis of customer reviews of Malick’s DVDs at Amazon. It could dip into the growing sea of public data about government activity to tell you what happened at city council (and maybe figure out which parts of the agenda were important, based on news stories, community bloggers, and social media traffic). It could gather up articles from high-trust news and government sources on NASA and algorithmically combine them into just as much info as the searcher wants. It’s a shift in the focus of Google’s judgment; websites shift from competitors to be ranked against each other to data sources to be diced and analyzed to figure out an answer.

These things aren’t right around the corner — they quickly get to be really complicated AI problems. But they all point to the fact that Google is working hard to reduce the number of times searchers need to leave to get answers to their questions. For all the times that Google has said it’s not in the content business, it’s not hard to imagine a future where its mission to “organize the world’s information” goes way beyond spidering and linking and into algorithmically processing for answers instead of PageRank.

That — much more than news organizations’ previous complaints about Google — could put real pressure on the business models of news websites. It challenges ideas of how to navigate the link economy and what ideas like search engine optimization, fair use, and aggregation mean. And it sure looked like Schmidt pointed the way last night.

POSTED     June 1, 2011, 11:30 a.m.
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