Google Has a Sneaky Semantic Surprise for Siri

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You knew it had to be coming. When Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) rolled out Siri, its personal-assistant app with voice-recognition and semantic analysis, there were many who called it a broadside against Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) dominance of the world's information resources. Would Big G roll over? Of course not! But until recently, we had little indication of just what shape the return volley would take.

Now, thanks to a Wall Street Journal interview with Google search exec Amit Singhal, we can see that Google's taken the logical next step toward organizing its information the way humans do. That's the best step toward ensuring its stranglehold on search stays tight for a long time.

Motley Fool Rule Breakers analysts Tim Beyers and Karl Thiel recently gave us an overview of what the future of search might look like. In their own words, "while data is everywhere, meaning increasingly comes from software." Anyone who's used a Google search (which, let's face it, is pretty much everyone) can attest to the firehose of links that result from nearly every string. It can be tough to find what you really want. When you look for the best prices on Mediterranean cruises, you don't want to sift through three pages of historical analysis of the Roman Empire.

Enter semantic search. There are very limited examples of semantic results on Google now, such as when converting one measurement to another or offering common information (such as the names of world leaders), but the proposed upgrade will work with a huge database of "entities," allowing the results to see that you're looking for the name of, say, The Motley Fool's CEO and return a line at the top telling you that our CEO's name is Tom Gardner. If you ask the search box when The Motley Fool was founded, it should tell you right away that the date was 1993. More interested in that Mediterranean cruise? Instead of a random list of links, you might see a list of ships, sailing dates, and prices.

Semantic shifts
Shifting to semantic-driven searches could be as big a transformation as the one that unseated Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) and put Google on top of the search heap. Despite the differences between Google's now-dominant model and the older Yahoo! model -- which had a much more hands-on ranking system -- we've been getting search results that have looked similar since the earliest days of the Internet. Yahoo!'s new search buddy Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) isn't much different, either.

That's why, despite being largely untested, Siri made such a splash when it was announced for the iPhone 4S. Finally, search that answers you like a human being! Except it didn't. Siri still has many limitations, not least of which is that Apple had exactly zero experience at developing a search engine. The meaning, as Tim and Karl put it, is often supplied by Wolfram Alpha. Heck, Microsoft's sunk billions into Bing, and it's only managed to get to its current market share thanks to a partnership with Yahoo!

We're drowning in data, but we still need to find meaning in it. Out of all the major tech players, none has the breadth and depth of expertise with data, and the way we use it, that Google has. The three pillars of Google's future strategy now appear to hinge on semantic search, mobile dominance, and social connectivity. Individually, the three pillars could be toppled. Together, they could withstand any assault. It just remains to be seen whether Google can make everything work together.

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Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter, @TMFBiggles, for more news and insights. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo! Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo! and creating bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (7)

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  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2012, at 11:30 PM, SkippyJohnJones wrote:

    The issue with reliance on semantic search is that there is no money in it. Google makes 95+% of its profits from advertisers. These advertisers are buying placement on search results. The more information google is able to directly supply from a semantic knowledge base, the less relevant the links are. If users visit Google to get an answer without clicking through, there is no reason to pay for placement. Siri is not a threat because of its ability to intercept search traffic from iOS users, it is a threat because it changes the fundamental model that keeps Google humming. It is a threat because Google is choosing to compete with Siri rather than downplay it.

    In the long run, it's healthy for Google to diversify away from its dependence on search advertising revenue. This could turn out to be positive destruction. But I worry about the next few years; the company is messing with basically its only commercial success here, and it is playing with fire.

  • Report this Comment On March 19, 2012, at 11:53 PM, Fruitfan wrote:

    Google worries me with trying to be too many things to too many people. I sold my GOOG shares recently because I worry that things like Siri and other mobile search will cut into their margins and revenues in the coming years. Google needs to focus on what they do best and stop with all the outside distractions. I assume Microsoft is going to go after the droid platform hard and fast. iOS is getting stronger penetration everyday which will draw more people to Siri. I have not used google in the car since getting my 4s

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2012, at 3:46 AM, funspirit wrote:

    Good column. Yes, Google has all the data, but Facebook watch out ...

    Bing Sucks!

    yahoo doesn;t innovate, and Google is becoming more of a portal. A column comparing Yahoo and Google here.

    Love all this tech stuff!

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2012, at 5:04 AM, H3D wrote:

    Siri will be the end of Google.

    Yes, google can respond with similar or alternative ways to make search efficient.

    But Google's business model was to sell the advertising in the dozens of pages you used to have to search through.

    Siri has started the process that will destroy that opportunity.

    Google can join in. But it can't stop it.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2012, at 7:14 PM, racchole wrote:

    End of Google....LOL.

    It's one thing to be on a permanent honeymoon with Apple, it's another thing to say your neighbor isn't pretty when she's a supermodel...

    Siri, a talking computer program. Unless it grows arms and legs and can burn down the Google datacenter, I am pretty sure it has no chance of de-seating the King of Search.

    Google does need to find a way to make search data useful. In fact, the world depends on it - business intelligence and data warehousing aren't just for fun. But they will be if the world doesn't find a way to use data.

    And once we find a way to use data, we won't need to store so much. The future will be fantastic. I wish I could see it.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2012, at 8:41 PM, XMFBiggles wrote:

    I think the predictions of Google's demise are a bit premature, as I wrote here:

    Siri's functionality and Google's overlap much less than some people grasp. Just because you ask Siri "What's the weather like tonight?" and you get results doesn't mean you're going to use Google less.

    - Alex

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