Google is rethinking search because TikTok and podcasts are taking over the internet

Multimedia search is a core focus for Google going forward. So is understanding an increasingly multimedia internet.

Phones with different search screens

Google's emphasis on visual search is about the search bar ... but also about the internet.

Photo: Google

One of Google's favorite statistics is that every day, roughly 15% of Google queries are for things that have never before been typed into the search box. And even at Google's impossible scale, the number never seems to go down. "Part of it, I have to admit, is that people find new and creative ways of misspelling words," Pandu Nayak, a Google fellow and the company's VP of search, told me earlier this month. But there are two other reasons, he said: The world changes all the time, and people's curiosity "is quite infinite in its complexity."

Google's challenge on the web is to find ever-better ways to collect and sort information. Crawling web pages is the easy part, relatively speaking. Understanding what's authoritative vaccine guidance and what's dangerous misinformation, or whether you typed "spaghetti" looking for definitions or recipes? That's all much more complicated. Nayak rattled off numbers like the 3,600 changes made to the search system last year, or the 60,000-plus experiments run internally. It's a lot of work, but Google's better at it than most.

But there's a core change happening on the internet that threatens Google in a serious, potentially existential way. An increasingly large amount of the web is not web pages full of text and hyperlinks. It's images, video and audio. TikTok and Instagram, podcasts and videos: Those platforms are just as much "the internet" as the Wikipedias and publisher sites Google has long relied on. And for the company that has spent two decades dedicated to organizing the world's information, that presents a problem.

At Google's Search On event on Wednesday, Google executives showed off some fancy new features, like a camera feature that can take a picture of a shirt and find socks with the same pattern. Or a way to take a photo of your broken bike chain and get search results for how to fix it. It's all part of Google Lens, the visual-first search system the company has been building for several years. Google has long talked about wanting to take search beyond the text box, to make it easier for people to input information and get answers. Context is crucial to that, too.

But just as important, and just as difficult, is understanding the information on the other side. It's technically possible to search TikTok and Instagram through Google, but the results are pretty primitive and mostly based on hashtags and video descriptions. Google is reportedly working on deals with ByteDance and Facebook to bring more content with better metadata into Google's search results, but that, too, is only half the battle.

Even on YouTube — itself the world's second-largest search engine, and obviously a Google-owned company — Google's search relies on metadata and automatically generated transcripts to figure out what's going on in a video. Introducing chapter markers made the system better, but only because creators gave Google hints about where to look. Its search crawlers don't understand what's on the screen in any meaningful way.

When he introduced Google's new Multitask Unified Model system (or MUM, as it's known) at Google I/O in May, Nayak hinted that things might be about to change. "MUM is multimodal," he wrote in a blog post, "so it understands information across text and images and, in the future, can expand to more modalities like video and audio." He echoed the sentiment in our conversation. "You can give [MUM] inputs that are both text and images, as a sequence of tokens," he said. "It only thinks about tokens … and it essentially learns the relationships between image tokens and word tokens, and I think we'll see a number of interesting examples coming out of that." He said that's not coming immediately, but "in the maybe not-too-distant future."

If Google can unlock a truly visual search engine in both directions — visual queries, visual data, visual output — it can be much better equipped to be to the future what, well, Google was to the past. More than two decades ago, the company took a disparate set of content and put it at users' fingertips. Now the content has changed, but the need hasn't.

The other upside for Google? Shopping. Practically every corner of the internet is embracing shopping as a way to make money, both for creators and for the platforms. For Google, the potential is massive: It could allow users to click on any product in any video or image anywhere on the internet, from the gadget in the foreground to the lamp in the background to the shoes on creators' feet, and be taken to a store to buy that thing. MUM could help Google build the world's biggest catalog, with Google as a happy fulfillment and payment service.

Companies around the industry, from Spotify to Pinterest to Apple to practically every other platform and service that deals in audiovisual content, are trying to figure out how to better understand and index the content in their systems. Google, as the trillion-dollar tech giant predicated on understanding and indexing all content everywhere, is in a high-stakes race to do it better.


1Password's CEO is ready for a password-free future

Fresh off a $620 million raise, 1Password CEO Jeff Shiner talks about the future of passwords.

1Password is a password manager, but it has plans to be even more.

Business is booming for 1Password. The company just announced it has raised $620 million, at a valuation of $6.8 billion, from a roster of A-list celebrities and well-known venture capitalists.

But what does a password manager need with $620 million? Jeff Shiner, 1Password’s CEO, has some plans. He’s building the team fast — 1Password has tripled in size in the last two years, up to 500 employees, and plans to double again this year — while also expanding the vision of what a password manager can do. 1Password has long been a consumer-first product, but the biggest opportunity lies in bringing the company’s knowhow, its user experience, and its security chops into the business world. 1Password already has more than 100,000 business customers, and it plans to expand fast.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

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Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.

Biden wants to digitize the government. Can these techies deliver?

A December executive order requires federal agencies to overhaul clunky systems. Meet the team trying to make that happen.

The dramatic uptick in people relying on government services, combined with the move to remote work, rendered inconvenient government processes downright painful.

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Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.


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Microsoft just bought one of the world’s largest third-party game publishers. What now?

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Just one week after Take-Two took the crown for biggest-ever industry acquisition, Microsoft strolled in Tuesday morning and dropped arguably the most monumental gaming news bombshell in years with its purchase of Activision Blizzard. The deal, at nearly $70 billion in all cash, dwarfs Take-Two’s purchase of Zynga, and it stands to reshape gaming as we know it.

The deal raises a number of pressing questions about the future of Activision Blizzard’s workplace culture issues, exclusivity in the game industry and whether such massive consolidation may trigger a regulatory response. None of these may be easily answered anytime soon, as the deal could take up to 18 months to close. But the question marks hanging over Activision Blizzard will loom large in the industry for the foreseeable future as Microsoft navigates its new role as one of the three largest game makers on the planet.

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AMD announced a $35 billion bid to acquire Xilinx more than a year ago.

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Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a Technology Reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron's magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.

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