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Google is making a fundamental change to its search engine, calling the update ‘perhaps one of the biggest since the beginning’

Google is deploying a massive update to Search — the company's core, original product — to make it more useful and show more relevant results.

With the update, Google is looking to better understand all the words you type in the Search box, not just keywords. That includes important words that give context to a question, like "to" or "for."

Previously, Google's search algorithms would essentially ignore these important contextual words, as it would only look at keywords. Here's an example that Google provided to show the difference when it considers important words it used to dismiss:


The query in the search box is asking Google if a Brazilian traveler planning to travel to the USA needs a visa in 2019.

In the pre-update result on the left, Google misunderstood the search term, and displayed an irrelevant result — Google thinks you're wondering about visa requirements to go to Brazil as a US traveler in 2019.

In the post-update result, Google understood that you're a Brazilian traveler asking about visa requirements for traveling to the US in 2019.

Indeed, the word "to" plays an important role in this search query. You're telling Google that you're a Brazilian traveler traveling to the USA. But Google's previous Search engine wouldn't recognize that, as it would dismiss the word "to."

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Google Search fellow and vice president Pandu Nayak acknowledged as much in a blog post, "While we've continued to improve our language understanding capabilities over the years, we sometimes still don't quite get it right, particularly with complex or conversational queries."

Anyone who follows Google these days won't be surprised about the key technology that will power this update. It's none other than "machine learning." In brief, machine learning helps Google "process words in relation to all the other words in a sentence, rather than one-by-one in order," Nayak said, and it can "therefore consider the full context of a word by looking at the words that come before and after it — particularly useful for understanding the intent behind search queries."

Here's another example:


For the example above, Nayak said that machine learning helps Google "better understand that 'for someone' is an important part of this query, whereas previously we missed the meaning, with general results about filling prescriptions."

Google has improved Search since its original deployment. But the current update is the "biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of Search," Nayak said.

Considering the importance of Google's Search service in the context of the history of the internet's evolution, as well as its importance in our daily lives, it's difficult to overstate the importance of Google's Search update.

Google Search will better understand one in ten searches made in English in the US, and it'll roll out the machine learning-powered update to more languages and places ove time, Nayak said.