Google Knowledge Graph: How it works


2 May 2011
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NEW DELHI: In the long evolution of online search since it began in the 1990s, Google's Knowledge Graph is closest the search giant has got to giving out relevant information -- without the user leaving the search page or clicking on a link.

Launched last week in the US, Knowledge Graph is an attempt to provide direct answers to your queries like 'Mahatma Gandhi', 'Statue of Liberty' or 'T20 Cricket'. A big leap from merely finding information to providing cogent answers.

You still get the blue links when you type a search query. The difference is that Knowledge Graph, on the right panel, adds boxes full of Wikipedia-like information to the search results page covering subjects like celebrities, cities, media, monuments, landmarks and sports teams.

Internet market research company comScore says there are more than 50,000 searches done every second. About a third are abandoned in frustration and for the rest, users have to tweak the query to get the right result.

Knowledge Graph is Google's latest attempt in its quest to improve search results and provide answers without users having to leave the page. So, if you are looking for say, the date Titanic sank and the number of survivors, you won't have to click on a link. Instead, you'll get answers on the Knowledge Graph, with details on Titanic.

In the past, a query like Taj Mahal was understood as just two separate words. But Taj Mahal has a much richer meaning - one of world's most beautiful monument, Grammy award winning musician or a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey or it can be even an Indian restaurant in the US.

Amit Singhal, senior vice-president, search and Google Fellow, said in a blogpost: "We have been working on an intelligent model - in geekspeak, 'graph' - that understands real world entities and their relationship to one another: things, not strings."

The difference
Depending on the collective wisdom of the users, if most people looked up the monument when searching Taj Mahal, the Knowledge Graph will provide a brief synopsis of the monument, its location, who built it, when and why and other monuments the searcher might be interested in, say Qutab Minar. While the musician and the restaurant will be provided as links.

The graph draws on public sources including Freebase, the CIA World Factbook (gives almanac style information about all countries) and Wikipedia to provide answers. Besides these data sources, the search algorithm decides what information to show based on collective wisdom of other Google users.

It was in the work for two years. Google's quest got a push when it acquired Freebase, in July 2010, a massive open structure database of information about almost anything including books, movies and music.

Says Ben Gomes, another Google Fellow, "It's a scaffolding of knowledge, a means of exploring all kinds of interesting connections." Fellow is revered designation within Google, reserved for its top notch engineers. Gomes was part of the team that developed the Knowledge Graph.

The Knowledge Graph right now contains more than 500 million objects and 3.5-billion facts about and relationships between these different objects. And it's tuned based on what people search for and what we find out on the web. So a query 'Sachin" could mean the cricketer, the yesteryear Bollywood actor or your friend on Facebook. The Knowledge Graph, based on history of queries will opt for Sachin Tendulkar and provide factoids about him including his date and place of birth, the 100 centuries, details about his family and so on without users having to leave the page.

The gameplan
The larger game plan in its latest gambit of answering search queries is to create stickiness (people stay longer on the search page), provide more focused advertising and get more people to click on ads. At stake is the $60 billion or so of annual revenue expected to come in 2014 from ads that appear next to search results.

Microsoft made a similar attempt, to go beyond the 10 blue links, when it acquired Powerset (a semantic search engine) in 2008. Since then, Microsoft's Bing has been offering more relevant search results and nibbling at Google's market share for search. And rival Yahoo claims that it started talking about Knowledge Graph type results about eight months back.

Says Hari Vasudev, vice-president, Connections Group at Yahoo, "search is shifting towards giving answers and not links. That includes integrating various elements including past searches. We started talking about it eight months back." The Connections Group comprises Yahoo's consumer businesses that connect and inform users including search, communications and social properties such as Yahoo Search, Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Messenger, Flickr and so on.

While Google has got a step closer to giving answers and not just information or links, it has limitations. According to IDC, the search haystack today exceeds 1 zettabyte of information - one followed by 21 zeroes.

If all the six-billion-plus people in the world posted messages on twitter continuously for 100 years, that's the information pile they would create. But Knowledge Graph relies on a very limited data set and is good only for more definitive search of say a celebrity, a movie, a monument, a sports team or a historical event.

"With 500 million entries to rely on for the answers, we are getting closer to being accurate, but it's not 100% accurate," says Gomes.

The graph is available in the US only as of now and reviewing it Rafe Needleman, a technology writer, says: "Search for concept like 'mortgage' and you get nothing from the Knowledge Graph. Look for news item 'Facebook IPO' and there's nothing in the Knowledge Graph.

Though, search for a mainstream movie or a TV show and you'll find yourself swimming in useful cross-links of directors, actors and similar shows or films." The search scaffolding needs to refresh fast.

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