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Google's New Predictive Search: Useful — and a Bit Creepy

July 2013

Google isn't happy just giving you great search results. The company now aims to tell you what you want to know even before you ask it. From amazing features in their Maps service, to the Jeeves-like Google Play, to the increasing use of predictive search, Google just keeps pushing the envelope.

Let's consider the new version of Maps they're rolling out. (Available by invitation only as I write this in late May. Click here.) It highlights locations based on your history and other Google applications you use — which is both useful and a little creepy. Once you're logged into a Google service on whatever device you're using, you see personalized maps tailored to your interests.

For example, it automatically highlights places you visit frequently, such as your home and favorite restaurants. The creepy part comes in when Google not only learns your preferences based on your past interactions with Maps, but also your search history and other Google products you use. Let's say you're a vegetarian and have done Google searches related to vegetarianism. Google can use that information to highlight vegetarian restaurants when you look at a map of a city that you've never been to before.

And since Google builds up a profile regarding your preferences, in some cases Google will show you locations that are preferred by people whose profile is similar to yours. When I visit a city, the vegetarian restaurants favored by other vegetarians will automatically be highlighted. One neat feature is that the maps change in real time. If you're in a new city and click on a museum that interests you, the map will then highlight other museums in the city.

All this is done anonymously. Google and other services that serve up ads tailored to you are using a profile of you, but they say no identifying personal information is associated with this profile.

These features are all part of Google's move toward predictive search — anticipating what you want rather than waiting until you specifically ask for it. Predictive features are also increasingly appearing in Google search results.

When you ask certain questions, Google will now try to predict your follow-up questions and answer them too — even before you ask them. When I type in, "What's the population of India?" Google not only gives me that information but also the population of Pakistan and of the Russia, based on the fact that these are the follow-up questions people ask most frequently.

If you search on "Eiffel Tower," Google not only returns links but also presents an attractive table at right with specific facts such as its height, when it was built, the number of floors, its address, and the architect. Plus, it gives you a list of related searches based on what other people have searched for, such as Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and Statue of Liberty.

Google searches also increasingly use your location to return specific results. For example, if I type in "How far is Ottumwa?", Google knows where I am and puts the information 24 miles or 32 minutes at the top of the search results and shows a map of the route.

One of the coolest new predictive offerings from Google is available on smartphones and tablets via a feature called Google Now. The technology debuted last year on Android devices and in April became available on the iPhone and iPad in the free Google Search app.

Google Now senses what you need and automatically gives it to you on a "card" that pops up from the bottom of the screen. For example, if you're heading to work, it will automatically pop up a card with a traffic update. Or if you're planning to take a flight, it will automatically pop up a card if there are changes to your flight. Google's tagline for the app is, "Right info at the right time."

When I opened the app on my iPad mini just now, it remembered the question I asked about Ottumwa and had a card telling me how many minutes to Ottumwa and showing a map of the route.

When there's a card available, a tab appears at the bottom of the screen. Touch the tab, and the relevant popup cards slide up into view. Once you've finished with a card, you just swipe left or right and it disappears.

In addition to directions, traffic, and flight updates, the app also has cards for stocks, weather, live sports scores, public transit, currency converter, translation, and your Google data such as Google Calendar.

A bit creepy, but useful.

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© 2013 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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