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The Amazing “Google Now” — When Google Searches Before You Think To

With Google Now coming to iOS, a whole new audience using iPhones and iPads are about to meet Google’s predictive search service. It’s a feature that’s gone from interesting novelty to being downright amazing, in less than a year. Here’s a look at how the “predictive search” service has evolved and where it may head next, including perhaps to desktop computers.

Wow, It Really Does Work

When Google Now first came out last June for Android, the information “cards” it supported were so limited, and showing so rarely for me, that I didn’t think much of it. That’s since changed dramatically. As Google Now has added support for more cards — and gathered more of my personal information — it’s become super smart.

I best encountered this a few weeks ago, when leaving an event at Facebook. I’d remembered my flight time wrong and suddenly got panicked that I wouldn’t get to the airport in time.

Dashing through the parking lot to my car, I turned-on my Galaxy Nexus phone and opened up the Google Now screen, to speak that I wanted it to navigate me from Facebook to the airport in San Jose. I needed both the directions plus an estimate of how long it was going to take.

Before I spoke, Google Now already had the trip up, with the estimated travel time, along with a link to start navigation. It had quite literally anticipated what I needed to know before I thought to search.


Another example of Google Now amazing me was earlier this month, when I was in Munich. I already had euros from a previous trip, so I hadn’t had to convert any dollars. That left me unsure of the exchange rate. I kept meaning to look it up, but when I went into Google Now, there was no need. It already showed me the exchange rate, as well as how to say “hello” in German and local photo spots.


That was another “wow” moment to me, where Google Now went well beyond what I expected, where I got a glimpse of what the future of “predictive” or “anticipatory” search might bring.

Google Now also does well for me in other ways in that, if they don’t make me go “wow” still are very useful.

For example, I regularly look for movie listings, usually on Fridays and Saturdays. Google Now sometimes has them ready for me, before I search. Google Now has learned sports teams that I like and automatically shows me the latest scores. It’s seen breaking news stories that I’ve read and keeps me updated on those:


It’s not perfect. I was at the Chelsea Football Club for our SMX London conference last year, which has caused Google to think that I’m interested in the team. No offense to Chelsea fans, but I’m not. That’s easily corrected by removing Chelsea from my sports list, of course. In other cases, it may make assumptions that can’t be corrected. But those cards are easily swiped away.

The Magic Behind The Scenes

To come up with its answers, Google Now takes in information from several sources:

  • Location: Your current location & location history
  • Searches: What you’ve searched for on Google over time
  • Gmail: Flight confirmations, hotels reservations & other information emailed to your Gmail account
  • Google Calendar: Events listed on your Google Calendar account
  • Google+: Your birthday & those of contacts
  • Google Finance: Companies listed in your portfolio

Information these personal sources of data can be used in combination with public info that Google knows about the world. For instance, Google knows the location of public transit points. If your phone tells Google Now that you’re located near one, say by a particular subway station, it makes a guess that a schedule of departures for that station might be useful.

Similarly, if you’ve booked a flight and had the reservation sent to your Gmail account, Google Now effectively keeps an eye on things for you, knowing that you personally are scheduled to go on a particular flight and watching public sources for an update on flight status.

Google’s page about Google Now has a good overview of the various cards that the service offers, as does this list of cards within the Google Now help area.

Below is our own guide to the cards offered, and the type of personal info required for them to appear. Also shown are when each card was added to Google Now and whether it works for both Android and iOS or Android-only (Google says Android-only cards will eventually also come to iOS):


Of course, if you don’t give Google one or more types of the personal information listed above, then Google Now can’t work its magic. Providing only your location allows some types of cards to appear; give Google access to your search history (Google calls this “web history”) or Gmail, and it can do more.

Obviously, this all requires people trust Google with this information. Beyond that, it requires making use of Google’s own services. An email about your flight can’t be used by Google Now if it goes to your Yahoo, Microsoft or Apple iCloud mail account. Only Gmail works. Searches you do on Yahoo or Microsoft Bing won’t be used by Google Now. They have to be done on Google Search.

In the end, if Google Now proves compelling, it won’t just cause people to search more at Google via the tool. It will also tie them even closer to Google’s various services.

The 20% Project That Could

Interestingly, Google Now — which is so much a search product — didn’t originate in the search or “knowledge” division at Google. Rather, it was one of Google’s famed “20% time” projects, where engineers are allowed to spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want.

In particular, Baris Gultekin and Andrew Kirmse created the product when they were on the Google Maps team. Some good background pieces on its origin are an excellent deep-dive on Google Now that The Verge did last October, a November interview with both creators on the Google+ Android page and one with Gultekin at Memeburn in March.

The 20% time days are long past; Google Now is a 100% time product for several people. Gultekin is now director of product management and Kirmse a software engineer for Google Now. And in January, Google Now was moved under Johanna Wright, as part of her promotion from director of product management in search to becoming vice president of search and assist for mobile.

I’ve known Wright for years, from her work as a veteran of major search initiatives such as Universal Search to the Google Knowledge Graph. Her move from the knowledge division of Google to the mobile area symbolizes, at least to me, how what began as a mobile product has now developed into a search product.

The Future Of Google Now: The Desktop?

As a search product, Google Now makes sense to leap off mobile devices and to the desktop, where plenty of searches happen. We’ve had hints that this may come, clues that Google Now might jump to Chrome, to Chromebooks or to the Google home page. The ongoing Gmail Search Field Trial certainly puts needed elements for this in place.

Google won’t confirm if this will happen nor say what cards or features to expect next, but Wright did suggest that what began on mobile might not remain restricted there.

“With the advent of mobile, your location provides a great piece of context to Google.  Furthermore, your phone is always with you to assist you as you go about your day.  Therefore mobile is a great launch vehicle for Now,” she said.

So, stay tuned. Meanwhile, those with Android 4.1 or higher — “Jelly Bean” — will find Google Now is part of their device (and you can update it via Google Play). Those with an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch running iOS 4.3 will find it as part of the Google Search App in iTunes.

Ironically, today’s launch also means more iOS users have access to Google Now than Android ones. Our other story, Potential iOS Market For Google Now Is 2.5X Larger Than Android “Now” Base, explains more about that.

Will The Google Search App Finally Be A Chart Topper?

Also stay tuned to see if the addition of Google Now into the Google Search App for iOS will help increase its adoption. The app received an impressive upgrade last October, becoming more like Apple’s Siri in accepting spoken searches and often responding faster than Siri does.

Despite this, the Google Search App doesn’t seem that popular. I never saw it break the top ten in the iTunes charts; 16 seems as high as it ever got, with it currently around the 150 mark.

In contrast, Google’s Google Maps and YouTube apps have consistently stayed atop iTunes since they were released last year (currently at 11 & 12, respectively). People clearly seem to be seeking them out, after those services were dropped as a native part of iOS.

Google Search remains integrated in the native iOS Safari browser due to Google’s search deal with Apple, so there’s less need for people to use the Google Search App. But Google would benefit if they did, at the very least in having insurance in case Apple ever did go “thermonuclear” in terms of ending the deal or “containment” in growing Siri as a search gatekeeper.

Maybe Google Now will be the extra incentive people need to kick the “search from Safari” habit they seem to have.