Google search engine will better understand natural speech, not just keywords

The company touts the change as "one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of search."

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
3 min read

Google has updated the technology behind its search engine.

Angela Lang/CNET

Google 's search engine will now better understand your confusing search queries, the company said Friday. Google said it's updating the tool to improve analysis of natural language. The idea is to let people type in queries that reflect how they speak in real life, instead of entering a string of keywords they think the software is more likely to understand. 

When it comes to finding things on the internet, the improvement is the "biggest leap forward in the past five years, and one of the biggest leaps forward in the history of search," Pandu Nayak, a Google vice president, said in a blog post. The update could affect around 10 percent of all searches in English in the US, the company said.

The change is possible because of a system Google introduced last year called BERT, or Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers. With the technique, Google's software can better parse the context of a sentence. For example, if you're looking for information about traveling to another country, Google will recognize how important the word "to" is (as opposed to "from" or just not giving the word enough weight to affect the results of the query). 


Google is improving its ability to understand natural language.


The change comes as Google has made a push to update its search engine, which is more than 20 years old. The company last month announced a feature for people to swipe left or right on TV and movie recommendations, to better train Google's search algorithms. Google in August also added playable podcasts to search results.  

Google's iconic search engine is still its cash cow, as well as the cornerstone of the company's digital advertising business. Google, which generates more than $115 billion a year in sales, makes more than 85 percent of its revenue on ads. 

The company has also revamped some of its other core search services, including Google Images and Shopping. In August, the company redesigned its image search tool to include more information alongside photos. So if you click on a product image, it'll show you information on brand, price, reviews and availability. And in May, the tech giant unveiled a major update to Google Shopping, letting users see options to buy products from physical stores or directly on the Google site itself.

The new search capabilities are also a part of a big effort by Google to improve its natural language chops. In May, the company announced a new version of its Google Assistant digital helper, which is 10 times faster than before and better understands human language. The improved Assistant launched last week with Google's new Pixel 4 phone. 

But the ability to better understand language has also landed Google in hot water. In September, the company confirmed that third-party workers who analyze language data from the Assistant leaked private conversations of users in the Netherlands. Belgian public broadcaster VRT NWS said more than 1,000 files had been leaked, including recordings from instances where users accidentally triggered Google's software. As a result, Google paused language reviews of the audio data and later made it an opt-in program.