Google guy talks mobile search UI

Google on Wednesday launched an enhanced search service designed to streamline the mobile Web browsing experience to reap faster more targeted results, the company said.

The interface eliminates the need to search through previously disparate bodies of information -- Web, images, news -- by combining search results from all areas. Before this, forgetting to click on a radio button to specify an image search, for instance, meant restarting the search, said Alex Nicolaou, mobile engineering manager with Google in Waterloo, Canada.

Besides, he said, on a handheld device, users aren't exclusively seeking Web pages in their results. "Making those things appear by default when the search system thinks that that's the result you want, just makes the experience that much faster," he said.

Another feature designed to make search more usable on handhelds is the improved local search experience that remembers recent search locations. "Typing the city you're in is not too onerous when you're at your desk at a keyboard, but typing it in on a 12-key pad on your phone can get pretty tiresome," he said.

Nicolaou disagreed that the location history would be onerous to frequent travelers whose search results would list locations in a recently visited city instead of the current location. The user need only indicate the new location once before the search remembers it for subsequent queries, he said, adding that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

The enhanced search features are another step by Google to make the mobile phone experience more like that of desktop search, said Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst for software with Toronto-based research firm IDC Canada.

"This is an evolutionary step," he said. Additional enhancements in mobile search functionality should be expected, he said, especially given Google's interest in the mobile arena with its bid in the 700Mgh auction to own a piece of the wireless spectrum in the U.S., and the anticipated mobile development platform, Android.

As for location-based search, Nicolaou declined to speculate whether GoogleMaps technology that identifies a user's current location would eventually be combined with Web search functionality. However, he did say the company would observe users' feedback to the GoogleMaps feature and "I'm sure we'll always look to optimize the experience for users as much as we can."

Restivo said the combination makes sense "so you're not toggling back and forth between applications." But as much as amalgamating those technologies stand to reason, he added that users may be a little reticent to give up their geographic location due to privacy concerns.

The search mogul acquired Waterloo, Ont.-based mobile browser technology developer Reqwireless Inc. in 2005, subsequently making the Ontario location Google's Canadian site.

It's tough to say whether the acquisition of Reqwireless contributed to the new mobile search enhancements, said Restivo. But he added that Google will only increase its global developer presence in order to continue improving the mobile search experience. "It wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that engineers in Waterloo are contributing that."

Although the acquisition of Reqwireless has given much to Google technology in many ways, said Nicolaou, "in terms of this particular launch, those technologies don't turn out to be relevant but they are an important part to the overall user experience."

While such technologies like this new interface may be available for handheld devices, it's the devices themselves that present a lingering challenge, noted Restivo -- specifically with issues around displaying information in a "digestible fashion", and the exorbitant data rates for users.

Besides launching in Canada, the enhanced search interface is also made available in the U.K., Germany, and France. Nicolaou expects it will be available in the U.S. by mid 2008. The U.S. is already test marketing a different search interface, hence the tardy launch south of the border, he said.

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Kathleen Lau

ComputerWorld Canada

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