Google alters search engine to handle complex queries

Algorithm to analyze relationships, not keywords

Google on Thursday announced one of the biggest changes ever to its search engine, a rewriting of its algorithm to handle more complex queries that affects 90 percent of all searches.

The change represents a new approach to search using Google and required the biggest changes to the company’s search algorithm since 2000. Now, the world’s most popular search engine will focus more on trying to understand the meanings of things and the relationships among them, as opposed to the company’s original strategy of matching keywords.

The company made the changes, executives said, because Google users are asking increasingly long and complex questions and they are searching Google more often on mobile phones with voice search.

“They said, ‘Let’s go back and basically replace the engine of a 1950s car,’” said Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land, an industry blog. “It’s fair to say the general public seemed not to have noticed that Google ripped out its engine while driving down the road and replaced it with something else.”

Google announced the new algorithm, called Hummingbird, at a press event to celebrate the search engine’s 15th birthday. The event was held in the garage that Google’s founders rented when they started the company. Yet Google revealed few details about how the new search algorithm works or what it changed. And it said it made the change a month ago, though consumers may not have noticed a significant difference in search results during that time.

Google originally matched keywords in a search query to the same words on Web pages. Hummingbird is the culmination of a shift to understanding the meaning of phrases in a query and showing people Web pages that more accurately match that meaning.

Google had taken other, smaller steps toward this. The Knowledge Graph, introduced last year, understands the meanings of and relationships between things, people and places, which is known as semantic search. It is why a search for Michelle Obama, for instance, shows her birthday, hometown and names of family members, as well as links to people like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

The new algorithm also builds on work Google has done to understand conversational language, like interpreting what pronouns in a search query refer to.

Hummingbird is a way to extend that to all Web search, not just to results related to the entities included in the Knowledge Graph. It tries to connect phrases and understand concepts in a long query.

The outcome is not a change in the way Google searches the Web, but to the results that it shows. Unlike with some of its other algorithm changes, including one that pushed down so-called content farms in search results, Hummingbird is unlikely to affect certain categories of Web businesses noticeably, Sullivan said. Instead, Google believes users will see more precise results.

Google announced a few other, more minor changes to search. It is changing the visual layout of mobile search to better suit phones and tablets. People can now compare two things, like butter and olive oil, or corgis and pugs, in search results. And with a new app for Apple devices, people can set reminders on an Android device at home and receive them on an iPhone later.