Google intros Q&A service

Google now returns factual answers for some queries, providing users with a shortcut to the desired information.

Google on Thursday began delivering factual answers for some queries at the top of its results page, to save users from having to navigate over to other sites and look for the information.

For example, if a user enters the query "Portugal population," Google returns the answer -- 10.5 million -- along with a link to the Web page where the information came from, which in this case is the population page of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Factbook.

The query "who is Jane Fonda?" triggers the answer "... is an Academy Award winning American actress, model, writer, producer, activist and philanthropist" and provides the link to the Wikipedia online encyclopedia's entry for the actress.

A small percentage of queries currently trigger these factual answers, but the service, called Google Q&A, is in its early stages, said Peter Norvig, Google's director of search quality. Currently, Google Q&A is strong in areas such as geography, information about famous people and physical facts, such as the size of planets, he said. Google will continually work to broaden the service's scope of topics and to improve its capability to deliver more complex answers, he said.

Other search engine providers such as Ask Jeeves Inc., Yahoo Inc. and America Online Inc. also offer features similar to this one, but Google doesn't feel it's late to the game, Norvig said. All search engines are moving toward resolving queries in this manner, and the quest for that is just beginning, he said.

Google feeds this service with information from Web sites it considers reliable, but it hasn't established formal relationships with any content provider whose information is being used for this feature, Norvig said. Google doesn't expect that the owners of the Web sites will complain over the possibility that this new service will steal traffic away from them, Norvig said. On the contrary, being featured at the top of Google's results list will give these Web sites great exposure, and will likely result in increased traffic, he said.

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