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Google is preparing the biggest overhaul of its search results in five years, in a change likely to draw more fire from rivals amid intensifying antitrust investigations into the company.
The new service – appearing to the right of regular search results – will present users with detailed information about more than 500m people, places and other “real world” items in response to a search query, rather than passing them on to another website to find an answer.
According to Google, billions of links between those pieces of data will make it possible to conduct online research by following trails of information, turning the service into what amounts to a giant database of connected facts.
Coming two days before Facebook’s closely watched IPO, the move also marks an attempt by Google to shine a spotlight on its key weapon in the online wars.
It has coined the name “Knowledge Graph” for the latest addition to its search engine, in contrast to the “social graph” of personal connections that Facebook frequently boasts of as the main underpinning of its own service.
A new panel will contain snapshots of information drawn from online sources such as Wikipedia, as well as Google’s own databases of items such as products and books.
References to related material will also be included, for instance linking a biography of Leonardo da Vinci to his paintings or to peers such as Michelangelo.
The change to the interface will appear in more searches than were affected by the 2007 introduction of Universal Search, said Ben Gomes, one of Google’s lead engineers in search.
Universal Search was designed to make it easier to pick through search results by grouping answers to a query into a number of different categories such as images, videos and products.
However, critics have attacked it for channelling internet users to Google’s in-house services, such as those for maps and shopping, and claim it unfairly robs other sites of visitors. The complaints are among those under review by regulators in Washington and Brussels.
The criticisms are set to escalate with Knowledge Graph, which Google plans to roll out in “the next few days”, although it characterised the changes as a way to make the web more useful rather than replace it with a private database.
“It’s just a scaffold that helps you traverse the web,” said Mr Gomes. “We want to help you to get to answers as soon as possible.”
The huge graph of information is a private approximation of the so-called “semantic web” that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, has long promoted. By linking pieces of data directly, rather than just the pages on which information appears, it would represent a step beyond today’s web.
Future advances should make it possible to draw together different types of information and pose increasingly complex queries to the knowledge graph, Mr Gomes said. One example offered by Google was: “Where can I attend a Lady Gaga concert in warm outdoor weather?”