Google Universal Search: Half of the Perfect Search Engine

In my dissertation I outline the quest for the “perfect search engine” – a search engine capable of indexing all available information and providing fast and relevant results. The perfect search engine will have to have “perfect reach” to deliver any type of online content from all online (and, increasingly, offline) sources, as well as “perfect recall” to deliver personalized and relevant results that are informed by who the searcher is.

For example, given a search for “Paris Hilton,” the perfect search engine will know whether to deliver results about the celebrity socialite, complete with the requisite image and video files, or a place to spend the night in France, complemented with photos of the property, maps, and even flight information.

John Battelle has summarized how such an omniscient and omnipotent search engine might work:

Imagine the ability to ask any question and get not just an accurate answer, but your perfect answer – an answer that suits the context and intent of your question, an answer that is informed by who you are and why you might be asking. The engine providing this answer is capable of incorporating all the world’s knowledge to the task at hand – be it captured in text, video, or audio. It’s capable of discerning between straightforward requests – who was the third president of the United States? – and more nuanced ones – under what circumstances did the third president of the United States foreswear his views on slavery?

This perfect search also has perfect recall – it knows what you’ve seen, and can discern between a journey of discovery – where you want to find something new – and recovery – where you want to find something you’ve seen before.

Google recognized early on the importance of designing a perfect search engine: the company’s very first press release noted that “a perfect search engine will process and understand all the information in the world…That is where Google is headed.” Google co-founder Larry Page later reiterated the goal of achieving the perfect search: “The perfect search engine would understand exactly what you mean and give back exactly what you want.”

Over the years, Google has taken a variety of steps towards achieving the “perfect reach” necessary to build the perfect search engine. In their effort to “organize the world’s information,” the reach of Google’s crawlers and index has expanded well beyond websites to include other online documents as well, such as images, news feeds, Usenet archives, and video files. Additionally, Google has begun digitizing the “material world,” adding the contents of popular books, university libraries, maps, and satellite images to their growing index. Users can also search the files on their hard drives, send e-mail and instant messages, shop online, and even engage in social networking through Google. Consequently, users increasingly search, find, and relate to information through Google’s growing information infrastructure of search-related services and tools. They also use these tools to communicate, navigate, shop, and organize their lives. By providing a medium for various social, intellectual, and commercial activities, “Planet Google” has become a large part of people’s lives, both online and off.

Today, Google took another step in further integrating these disparate products and services with their new “Universal Search” product:

Google’s vision for universal search is to ultimately search across all its content sources, compare and rank all the information in real time, and deliver a single, integrated set of search results that offers users precisely what they are looking for. Beginning today, the company will incorporate information from a variety of previously separate sources – including videos, images, news, maps, books, and websites – into a single set of results. At first, universal search results may be subtle. Over time users will recognize additional types of content integrated into their search results as the company advances toward delivering a truly comprehensive search experience.

For example, a user searching for information on the Star Wars character Darth Vader is likely interested in all the information related to the character and the actor – not just web pages that mention the movie. Google will now deliver a single set of blended search results that include a humorous parody of the movie, images of the Darth Vader character, news reports on the latest Lucas film, as well as websites focused on the actor James Earl Jones – all ranked in order of relevance to the query. Users no longer have to visit several different Google search properties to find such a wide array of information on the topic.

This moves Google closer towards achieving the “perfect reach” necessary for the perfect search engine – something that will make Planet Google even more alluring and difficult to resist.

(I’m on a deadline tonight, so my general thoughts as to how the perfect search engine represents a Faustian bargain – especially when we consider its other half: perfect recall – will have to wait for another time…)


  1. Hi Michael, don’t we accuse ourselves when we call Google a Faustian bargain. I mean the need to have a perfect search engine is not only Google’s will but also us consumers. I believe that many of us including bloggers are falling to much into a technical as well as social determinism. Google can do whatever it wants, but they way it is been used or manipulated resides in the user. Google is at the end constructed on a daily basis from our usage. That usage determines it success.

  2. Hi Johntie – thanks for the comment.

    I agree that the Faustian bargain goes both ways – I’m not trying to be a strong determinist. However, I don’t feel that the way Google is designed and built lies solely on the “way it is been used or manipulated” by users. Google is trying to create shareholder value, and it does so by earning money through selling of advertising tied to search-related products. The “perfect search” helps it maximize that proposition.

    The concern is that users are increasingly unable to resist the lure of Google – they are constantly reminded how awesome Google is, and how important for them to collect personal information. The worry is that Google is taken “at interface value” (to quote Turkle from a different context), and that the Faustian bargain is accepted without a balanced and informed negotiation.

    There’s much more to say here – much of which I try to do in the dissertation – and I’ll have to write some longer posts later when I have more free time.

    Thanks for reading~

  3. Thanks for the response Michael,

    I agree with your points.
    My thought was mainly from a sociological comm perspective: that if we say that users take Google at interface value, don’t we tend to be a

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