Google introduced a new feature for search results pages this week, which displays so-called facts in the snippets of specific results. It's yet another way of Google displaying information on a page that could mean the user doesn't have to bother clicking through to a third-party website.
What do you think of this feature? Good or bad for users? For webmasters? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The feature is called "structured snippets".
"Google Web Search has evolved in recent years with a host of features powered by the Knowledge Graph and other data sources to provide users with highly structured and relevant data. Structured Snippets is a new feature that incorporates facts into individual result snippets in Web Search, Google explains on its Research blog.
The company shares this example for a result for the query "nikon d7100".
Google is displaying little "facts" that it deems interesting and relevant, and is doing so algorithmically. Here's another one for the query "superman" as shown on a mobile device:
"The WebTables research team has been working to extract and understand tabular data on the Web with the intent to surface particularly relevant data to users," Google says. "Our data is already used in the Research Tool found in Google Docs and Slides; Structured Snippets is the latest collaboration between Google Research and the Web Search team employing that data to seamlessly provide the most relevant information to the user. We use machine learning techniques to distinguish data tables on the Web from uninteresting tables, e.g., tables used for formatting web pages. We also have additional algorithms to determine quality and relevance that we use to display up to four highly ranked facts from those data tables."
That bit about fact ranking is interesting. We recently heard about Google's "Knowledge Vault," which had already pulled in 1.6 billion "facts" with about 271 million of them ranked as "confident facts". These are the ones, which Google believes there to be a 90% chance of being true. It would seem that there is room for error.
In fact, Google implied that there will likely be some inaccuracies with the structured snippets.
"Fact quality will vary across results based on page content, and we are continually enhancing the relevance and accuracy of the facts we identify and display," the company said.
In other words, not all of this stuff will necessarily be accurate, but hopefully more of it will be over time. How often will users know when they're seeing inaccurate information? As we've seen with Google's Knowledge Graph time and time again, this has been an area of concern. At times, it has even directly affected businesses with little apparent urgency on Google's part for correcting errors.
On how Google collects the information for structured snippets, Pierre Far, a webmaster trends analyst at the company, said in a Google+ post:
It's not structured data (schema.org) driven! Instead, it's powered by algos that try to find interesting tables within webpages to extract the key facts related to the topic of the page. This deeper understanding of the contents, plus some quality checks, gives us a new kind of snippet.
As Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable points out, these snippets mean users will have even less reason to click on third-party results, as it will mean more instant information right from the Google page.
Unlike schema.org-driven data, Google is going out on its own and finding this algorithmically meaning that webmasters will have less control over when Google plucks such information from their pages to present "facts" and prevent clicks.
Schwartz points to an interesting comment from a Webmaster, who said in a forum post: "Formerly, Google really distinguished itself from all other well-known properties on the web by being 'the best place, bar none to find websites.' If Google continues to transition from that paramount search engine to being merely 'one of several places to find knowledge about nearly everything' then it becomes more like Wikipedia, Freebase, Wolfram etc. And that means there will be less reason to visit Google, not more."
I'm not sure if I agree that people will use Google less when they're getting information directly from it, but it could create some opportunities for other services that actually do want to help users find websites of interest.
The fact is that we're living in an increasingly mobile world, and along with that comes quick voice-activated searches, which is when Google's quick answers come in most handy. When you're on your phone, you don't always want to have to navigate around the web. You want instant gratification.
Google seems to value this concept greatly, even at the expense of the occasional inaccuracy, and certainly at the expense of sending traffic to other websites.
Google has said it time and time again, but Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt reminded everybody once again a couple weeks ago: "We built Google for users, not websites."
He was speaking about Google's dominant position in Europe, where the EU is awaiting the company's latest proposal with new concessions to avoid formal antitrust charges and fines.
Schmidt said Google is not the "gateway to the Internet as the publishers suggest," and that "to get news, you’ll probably go direct to your favorite news site. It’s why newspapers like Bild, Le Monde and the Financial Times get most of their online traffic directly (less than 15% comes from Google). Or you might follow what other people are reading on Twitter. To book a flight or buy a camera for your next holiday, you’re as likely go to a site like Expedia or Amazon as you are Google. If you’re after reviews for restaurants or local services, chances are you’ll check out Yelp or TripAdvisor. And if you are on a mobile phone — which most people increasingly are — you’ll go straight to a dedicated app to check the sports scores, share your photos or look for recommendations. The most downloaded app in Europe is not Google, it is Facebook Messenger.”
“Nor is it true to say that we are promoting our own products at the expense of the competition. We show the results at the top that answer the user’s queries directly (after all we built Google for users, not websites),” he added.
He went on to say that he thinks it’s okay to rank weather sites lower and give them less traffic when Google shows local weather at the top of the page because it’s “good for users.” He said it’s the same if you want to buy something, and that if you want directions somewhere, a Google Maps result is a “great result for users.”
Increasingly - as the new structured snippets show - Google thinks the Google results page itself is a "great result for users."
What do you think about structured snippets? Good or bad? Let us know in the comments.
Images via Google