Google's Larry Page: Web search remains a challenging technology, but usability still key

By Graeme Burton
16 May 2014 View Comments
Larry Page

Google search is far from perfect, and the "art" of internet search is becoming ever-more difficult as information proliferates and takes increasingly different forms.

That is the message of Google co-founder Larry Page in his annual Founders' Letter.

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"We're increasingly able to provide direct answers to your questions. For example, 'what's the deepest lake in the world?' (It's Lake Baikal in Siberia at 1,741 meters) or, 'when does my flight leave?' or, 'how many calories in a pancake?' And I am excited by the progress we have made with Voice Search, which now works in over 38 languages," wrote Page.

"Yet in many ways, we're a million miles away from creating the search engine of my dreams, one that gets you just the right information at the exact moment you need it with almost no effort. That's partly because understanding information in a deep way is a hard problem to solve," he continued.

Google Now, he claimed, is one answer. "It provides information without you even having to ask, so no more digging around in your inbox to find the tracking number for a much-needed delivery; it's already there on your screen."

He also pushed Google+ - described recently by an ex-Google staffer as "the Bing of social media".

The company is also making headway in artificial intelligence in order to understand the deeper context of people's searches.

"[This] is crucial if we are to improve human-computer interaction. Think about your commute. You need the traffic information very accessible so you can plan for it, or avoid it altogether. If you're going to another appointment, you want the directions to start from where you are at that moment (rather than having to type in your location on a small screen).

"Improved context will also help make search more natural, and not a series of keywords you artificially type into a computer. We're getting closer: ask how tall the Eiffel Tower is, and then when 'it' was built. By understanding what 'it' means in different contexts, we can make search conversational."

However, providing that context may also mean surrendering even more information about yourself to Google than it already gets from people's searches and its advertising cookies that track people around the internet.

Google is also working to develop software, such as the Chrome browser, that works seamlessly as people move from device to device - from PC to tablet to smartphone, for example.

"Open a map on your desktop; when you switch to your mobile device, the same tab will be open so you can pick up right where you left off. Think about photos: they are a really great use case for how bad things can be in a multi-screen world. We've all suffered the frustration of having our photos marooned on different devices, making them hard to find, let alone share. G+ instantly uploads them to the web, so you can view them from any device. Better still, if you lose your phone, your photos don't get lost, too," writes Page.

Page's annual letter is written to investors every year in advance of the company's annual general meeting.

Top of the agenda, according to Page, is usability: "I remember taking a class at the University of Michigan on usability. Students had to pick a program they knew really well (I chose an email program) and estimate how long it would take experts to perform different tasks. It really helped me understand that building good, efficient interfaces is hard, and a bit more like engineering than you might think. Another tab here, another drop-down menu there.

"The more choices you throw at people (even if they never use them), the longer it takes them to get stuff done. People still talk about the simplicity of the Google homepage, and that was a huge part of our original success. There's no reason the same principles can't apply across our products, especially now, with so many devices and options, and so much opportunity for distraction."

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