This week, Reuters reported that Amit Singhal is retiring from his position at Google.
The longtime Google search chief is leaving his post after fifteen years to pursue philanthropic interests. While Singhal has helped the company make search better than it’s ever been, what may be of interest to attorneys is who’s about to take Singhal’s place.
Singhal will depart near the end of February. When he does, his job will be handled by Google Vice President of Engineering John Giannandrea. Giannandrea has been a leader in developing Google’s artificial intelligence and machine learning efforts.
What could this potentially mean for search engines? Below, we look at ways search has improved during Singhal’s time and the ways that Giannandrea’s role as Google’s Search Chief could have an effect on the state of search — and how your potential clients find you on the web.
How Google’s Singhal Improved Search For Attorneys
As Danny Sullivan reported yesterday, Singhal’s efforts have been important to the Google search we’re familiar with today. Singhal joined Google in 2000 and ended up re-writing Google’s original search algorithm, among other improvements. Two years in, Singhal led the company to overcome some of the challenges that come along with search, as Steven Levy points out:
Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 […] As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”
The Value of Mobile Search For Law Firm Websites
Sometimes, clients use varied terms to describe their case or problem, this improved aspect of search likely means that potential clients get results that are better tailored to their needs than in the past. Singhal was also highly committed to improving mobile search — so much so that he’s spent the last year doing almost all of his internet search activity on his mobile phone. This is important for attorneys to consider in that Singhal’s choice to do so was prompted by not only his desire to improve mobile search in general but also for the fact that more people are searching on Google with mobile devices than on desktop devices.
In the year that he spent doing nearly all his search activity via mobile phone, Singhal discovered some features of mobile search that still make him “cringe.” But, as he pointed out, not only are a majority of people using Google mobile search, many of them are using voice search — and that includes his own son.
In his interview with Danny Sullivan, Singhal said that his 15-year-old son completes his homework “with a pencil in one hand, his phone in the other hand.” Singhal says that he’s rarely seen his son actually type something into his mobile device. Instead, Singhal’s son habitually makes use of voice search.
Singhal’s work in search, alongside his observations about how he and others use mobile search, set the stage for Giannandrea and his team to improve aspects of mobile and voice search with better and more functional AI than we’ve seen in previous years. As AI improves to not only understand typed queries better, but also voice queries, potential clients may find themselves literally asking Google about their legal questions, choosing the right law firm, scheduling consultations, and more.
How Google Returns Relevant Results For Lawyers
Singhal’s work has even improved search in ways related to attorneys. In his Wired article, Levy writes that even seemingly easy searches can be “deceptively complicated” — enough that typing in “[First name] [Last name] [State]” and “lawyer” to an engine like Bing in some cases returned pages of search results that in no way involve the attorney being searched for. That’s because Singhal cracked the problem behind “bi-gram breakage.” That’s the idea of separating multiple words into their own units. The article gives a good example:
For instance, “New York” represents two words that go together (a bi-gram). But so would the three words in “New York Times,” which clearly indicate a different kind of search. And everything changes when the query is “New York Times Square.”
While humans can determine the parsing — we know “New York Times Square” references the large commercial intersection in Manhattan — computers can’t. That’s why Google’s algorithms are so impressive. Let’s consider an example query: “John Smith Lawyer Montana.”
In order to return relevant results, Google has to know that “Smith” is a last name — rather than a middle name — and that “Lawyer” references “attorney,” not a city somewhere in Montana.
Back to the first-name-last-name example: type that same query into Google, and you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for. That ability to interpret what a search engine users means — and return high-quality results — is at the heart of Google’s search quality.
RankBrain May Help Law Firm Clients Get Better Search Results
Last year, with Singhal still at the search helm, we learned that Google developed — and is using — an AI called RankBrain.
While Google’s past algorithms have relied on human power to determine what makes up good search results, the RankBrain signal is different: humans can now write code meant to help machines determine for themselves, over time, what defines the best and most relevant search results. Not only that, but RankBrain is designed to understand obscure or complex queries — a benefit for lawyers in that potential clients ask lots of different questions to Google in lots of different — and sometimes awkward — ways. Much in the way that Singhal’s work helped to solve some early intent issues, RankBrain will continue to learn about semantics and the way that people naturally use language.
Just how much does RankBrain matter to search? As Sullivan points out in his piece, Google itself has said that RankBrain is the third-most important ranking signal. It was a “revolutionary change” that may indicate how quickly search is changing and the powerful role that AI may play in the future of search engines.
RankBrain arrived at the right time — Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, recently announced his interest in building a “simple” AI that will help him at home, keep an eye on his newborn daughter, and help him visualize his work better. And Facebook’s not the only major company to be interested in AI. From the creation of iPhone’s Siri to Amazon’s Alexa and even more advanced machine learning tools like Viv, many large tech companies seem to be in competition to create an AI that’s increasingly useful to its users.
The addition of an AI whiz like Giannandrea to Google’s search team could mean a lot of interesting things in terms of how we’ll interact with Google in the near future.
Google’s Future and Law Firm Websites
While Google will get a new leader for their search team, it’s unlikely that we’ll see large, immediate changes to search. However, the announcement about Giannandrea’s new role at Google may be signaling where we’re headed when it comes to answering questions, and how potential law firm clients will ask and answer them. Now that Google will be merging Giannandrea’s research team with Singhal’s search team, the possibilities for understanding complex queries, better voice search, and other as-yet unrefined aspects of mobile search may get here sooner than later.
Singhal may have been the seasoned vet of search at Google, but Giannandrea’s experience with early Internet companies, alongside the fact that he’s responsible for turning “far-fetched” research into usable consumer products, indicates that he’s no amateur.
In the meanwhile, attorneys can prepare themselves for the future of search by continuing to create unique, high-quality content for their law firm websites and blogs, which gives Google more quality material to index and retrieve for search engine users when they make a relevant query. Additionally, knowing what we know about who’s using mobile devices for search, lawyers will also want to be sure that their websites use responsive design to optimize website viewing experiences for those visiting your firm on the web. As more and more people find mobile devices more useful for asking questions (whether by hand or by voice), finding answers, scheduling appointments and more, attorneys will want to be sure their web presence is as modern, functional and useful as the future of search itself.