But the more useful Google becomes, the more it finds itself pushing at the boundaries of what people will find acceptable. Image Search has the potential to be its next privacy landmine.
These were the highlights from an event on Tuesday where Google showed off a spate of incremental search improvements:
Instant Pages. To make searching faster, Google will try to anticipate which link a user will click on for each search, then pre-load that page at the same time as it returns search results. That will cut out the average 5 second delay users experience while waiting for pages to load, the company says.
Image Search. Paste a photograph into the search box and see if Google can identify it from its library of images.
Voice search on desktops. This brings a mobile search innovation back onto the desktop Web (though, apart from Skype, it’s not clear that users want to talk to their desktop machines yet).
In its usual cryptic way, Google offered a tantalising glimpse of some of the trends in mobile search, without actually giving away too much real information away. Search volumes are up fivefold over the past two years, and the growth trajectory over the past three years has been almost identical to an early three-year period in desktop search (though without knowing which three years, the comparison loses some of its usefulness).
Voice-activated search – a field that could really set Google apart in mobile – is also finally taking off. Voice queries are up sixfold in the past year, and they now amount to “two years of talking” a day. (Our translation: if each query takes an average of 5 seconds, that would be equivalent to around 12m voice searches a day. Not bad, but still tiny compared to the more than 1bn searches a day Google says it handles in all.)
When I asked Amit Singhal, head of Google’s search ranking group, whether the three-year comparison of early mobile and desktop also applied to advertising growth, he said the advertising pick-up was “as robust” as it had been on the desktop. (He sounded less positive about the advertising impact of Instant Search, launched a year ago – he described the results as “solid” and said that people were searching more with Instant. Our translation: while volumes have gone up, click-through rates could well be going down.)
Image Search had the biggest “wow” factor of any of the new search features. An old holiday photograph with a rocky island in the background was dropped into the search box, which instantly returned a location.
Anticipating some of the privacy fears, Google said image search did not use facial recognition. But that is when things got a little fuzzy.
When it comes to the face of a well-known public figure, the service might well return a match, said Mr Singhal. And, asked if Google could identify, say, a person’s home from a picture, another Google executive said that the service would work best with images that are common on the Web.
So there is no hard line between the personal and the public here. It just depends on how often an image appears online. Over time, as Google’s technology improves and more personal information finds its way online, that will be a moving line.
Image search, of course, looks like being an extremely useful service. But that could end up being its problem.