By Bill Slawski
This is my first post at the SEM Clubhouse, and it is a pleasure joining the team at KeyRelevance.
I’ve been reading patents from search engines for a few years to see what can be learned from them. A number of patent filings usually come out each week from the major search engines, and they often provide some insights into how search engines work.
This past week was no exception, and one of the filings that caught my eye was about the snippets that are shown on the search engine results pages that you see after performing a search.
Since this is my first appearance here, I also want to provide a brief introduction into why I like to look at patent filings from the search engines.
News about search engines and search marketing can come from a lot of different sources on the Web. We try to keep up with that news so that we can keep on top of changes within the industry, and anticipate those changes in our efforts to work with clients and their web sites.
Of the many different news sources, there are some that we consider primary sources because the information comes directly from the search engines. These include the guidelines that the different search engines provide, the official blogs that they produce, white papers published by their employees, and patent filings that they make.
Why look at patent filings?
There are two different kinds of patent filings published at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)- granted patents, and patent applications. Granted patents can be interesting because they provide a search engine a legal right to exclude others from using the same or a very similar process or method as described in the patent.
Patent applications are filings that may become granted patents, but haven’t attained that status yet, and are open to being challenged. The applications are usually published a number of months after they have been filed with the patent office, often up to 14 months after being filed in many cases.
Patent filings can describe processes that a search engine may be working upon developing, or technology that they may consider working upon, or even innovations that they may never develop. One of the interesting things about them is that they can provide some insight into the assumptions and thought processes of the inventors who worked upon them, and give us a peek into the mindsets of those search engineers.
As an internet marketer, it’s easy to think like an internet marketer. Being given a chance to see search engines and the Web from the perspective of people who work at search engines helps to think a little like those search engineers, and broadens our own views, often in meaningful ways.
Parts of a Patent Filing
There are a number of parts to a patent filing, and knowing what those parts are, and what they do can make it a little easier to read a patent.
An Abstract attempts to describe the claims behind the document in a handful of sentences.
There’s usually a section titled something like Description of Related Art which talks about the other technology that is related in some way, and provides a reason why the patent filing in front of you was created.
Another common section is a Summary, which expands upon the abstract in a number of paragraphs, and is usually the easiest part of a patent filing to read, because it tends to come closest to using plain English.
The Claims section of a patent filing is actually the heart of the document – it lists the specific items that the people or organization behind it are attempting to patent, though it can be pretty hard to read.
Another section, usually labeled something like Detailed Description provides more depth, through examples of the methods and processes involved and summaries of those processes, as well as examples of the technological environment in which the methods described in the filing might operate.
Patent filings also often come with Images which sometimes are flowcharts of the different processes described, or screenshots of a program in action, or other illustrations that might help someone reading the patent filing understand what it is about.
The easiest way to understand what a patent is about is to start with the description of related art to see what problem the patent filing is aimed at resolving, then the summary to see how they intend to fix that problem. The images are usually a good next section to view because they can sometimes illustrate what the patent filing is about in a handful of pictures.
Google’s Expanded Snippets
Sometimes the technology behind a patent filing has been developed, and is already in use when a patent application is published at the USPTO. Sometimes it has been developed, but isn’t in use yet. Sometimes it is impossible to tell whether or not a Google or Yahoo or Ask.com is using what they’ve described within a patent filing. Regardless, we can often learn from the patent filings a little something about the search engines.
This newly published patent application from Google on Expanded snippets focuses upon the snippets that you see in search results pages that search engines show to tell you more about the pages appearing in those results.
When you perform a search at a search engine, the terms in your query are used to locate and identify web pages that contain your search terms.
The results that you receive for a web page result usually contain three pieces of information; a title, a snippet, and a link. The title identifies the web page, and is usually a link to that page. The snippet usually contains a small portion of the web page or text from a meta description from the page. It is often limited to around a sentence worth of text, and may sometimes include one or more partial sentences. The address of the web page is also usually show, as the URL of the page (for example, http://www.example.com/interestingpage.htm).
Snippets can often be very helpful in letting searchers decide upon which page they may want to choose to visit, though they tend to be short so that they are easy to read, and so that a search result page isn’t too long.
The problem that this patent application attempts to solve is that because of the short length of a snippet, it may not provide enough information for a searcher to make a meaningful decision as to which page they should select to visit.
A quick summary
The challenge behind this patent is to try to keep search results short and very readable, and yet make it possible for searchers to expand snippets so that they can learn more about a page before actually visiting that page. One solution is to find ways to extract meaningful extended snippets from web pages, and present them so that a searcher can choose them (by clicking upon them or hovering over hem, or perhaps clicking on something like a plus sign) to learn more about the destination page.
As patent filings go, this isn’t anything earth shaking, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth paying attention to, or thinking about. Here are some of the thoughts I found myself asking as I read through the document:
What makes a good snippet? How might Google go about expanding snippets? How should the content of a page be written so that if the search engine does decide to expand the snippet for the page, it may become even more capable of persuading searchers to visit that page?
When someone searches, they enter a query term into a search box at the search engine, or on toolbar. A list of search results is formed based on the identified search result documents, which may be ranked based upon relevance and importance scores and presented to the searcher as a list of search results
Those results may be presented to the searcher with a title, a snippet, an address, and possibly some other links such as a “Cached” link that may permit a cached version of the search result page to be presented, and a “Similar pages” link that may permit other documents similar to the search result document to be presented.
If the searcher wants additional information about a search result page than what appears in the little amount of information available in the snippet, they might be able to click upon those snippets or mouse over them to see more.
If the snippet is selected, an expanded snippet may be provided, which may include:
1) The text excerpt of the snippet and additional text located near the text excerpt in the search result page, such as text before and/or after the text excerpt.
2) The amount of additional text might be a predetermined amount of text, such as a certain number of terms that appear before and/or after the original snippet in the search result document.
3) Or, the additional text may be more intelligently selected by looking at structural components on the page, such as the paragraph, or table entry, or section in which the original snippet appears, or looking at paragraphs or table entries or sections above or below the original snippet.
A takeaway from the patent
This is one of the simplest patent filings that I’ve seen from Google in a while, but it does have some value.
It does tell us that Google does value providing more information about web pages that show up in search results for people who are willing to click upon snippets to see expansions of those snippet.
It also tells us that if we optimize a page for a certain term or terms, that we should pay careful attention to the sentences or sections of a page that those words appear upon within the page, and the rest of the content that surrounds those words within those paragraphs or sections. They may end up appearing out of the context of the page itself, as part of an expanded search result.
If they do, will those expanded snippets be persuasive? Will they help a searcher consider visiting the page listed in the search results? Combined with the title of the page, and the URL shown to searchers, is a potential expanded snippet attractive enough to capture the attention of a searcher, and engage them enough to have them wanting to find out more by clicking upon the link presented to them in search results?
Thanks for reading. I’ll look forward to sharing more here about some of the patent filings and research coming from the search engines, and our thoughts upon them.