Search engines at war, releasing biggest changes in years

Google and Microsoft are battling to make a better search engine -- and you stand to reap the benefits.

Search engine giant Google has spent the past few years building a vast database of real world things -- the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco, Leonardo DiCaprio and more. The company calls it the Knowledge Graph, and it has more than 500 million such things, with 3.5 billion connections between them.

Starting today, the company will begin an update that routes search queries through the database, presenting far more relevant bits of information to users.

It’s Google’s biggest search change in years.

“Our goal is to help people learn things about the world, which will let them act in the world to do great things,” Ben Gomes, distinguished engineer at Google, told "We’ve been working on this for the last couple of years. It’s been an incredible amount of effort."

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Google isn’t the only search engine getting smarter, however.

On May 15, Microsoft announced that a new, smarter version of the Bing search engine had gone live, which tightly integrates information from all of your social networks -- such as Facebook and Twitter -- into a darker-shaded right-hand sidebar.

“With sidebar, Bing brings together the best of the web, with what experts and your friends know, giving you the confidence to act,” said Derrick Connell, Microsoft vice president in charge of Bing. “This new way to search lets you share, discover, and interact with friends like you do in real life.”

The change, which Microsoft first announced last week, is the biggest shift to Bing since Microsoft first launched the “decision engine” three years ago.

Google’s project is arguably more ambitious -- a solution to the challenge of deciphering the intent behind the 5 or 6 characters a human enters into a search field. Take a search for “kings,” for example.

“The ‘Kings’ search is a messy one,” Gomes told “Does the user mean the LA Kings hockey team, the Sacramento Kings basketball team, or the TV show?”

If a search is unclear, the site offers a clickable choice of the three logical options. In order to parse the query, it assembled the massive database from many extant sources, including Wikipedia, the World CIA Fact Book, data gleaned from cars creating the company’s mapping data, and so on.

“We’ve created a massive graph of entities in the real world and the relations among them,” he explained.

Microsoft’s change is no slouch, however. Qi Lu, president of the company’s online services division, called it “a complete redesign of our entire product.”

Search results are now split into three panels: one for search results, one called Snapshot for relevant information, actions and services related to a search -- including maps, links to make restaurant reservations and reviews -- and a new third panel for information from the world of social media.

If you’re searching for diving spots in Hawaii, you might see a friend who lived in Hawaii, your sister who shared photos from her honeymoon in Hawaii, and a buddy who “likes” a restaurant in Hawaii, the company said. You can then ask them for recommendations right from Bing.

“This is a big, bold bet that we think is going to surprise a lot of people,” said Lisa Gurry, Bing's senior director.