Google is building fact mining into the search engine. Coming across a little article over at The Best Article Every Day, I got wind that Google Spreadsheets can do lookup of certain statistical and financial information. You can have formulas that include things like the latest Microsoft stock quote or the boiling point of sodium. This seemed interesting, so I played with it a bit, but changing the formula quickly to play with it was awkward. "Can I just Google this stuff," I thought? Yes. Read on for my findings.
The documentation for the Spreadsheet function, GoogleLookup, talks about entities and attributes. "Pluto" is an entity and "mass" is an attribute. As it turns out, you can just search for "mass of Pluto" or "birth rate in Canada" and are presented with a new type of search result.
We can see that Google seems to be pulling facts from the websites they index. They are structuring the information into subjects and properties about them. The feature has some large holes of missing functionality. "boiling point of sodium" gives a fact, but the system fails to parse any of the hits for "boiling point of mercury". The information we can get seems a little hit and miss. The community needs to put effort to document all of the entities and attributes.
One interesting result is searching for "mass of Pluto" doesn't just give us a fact result, but what appears to be a Google calculator result. This means they are recognizing the mass in both value and units. We can even use "mass of Pluto" in any calculation we would give to Google calculator.
As the shift is made from taking finding relevant documents to just giving us the information directly, we might wonder what the future of the search engine is. I expect we'll see someone in the next year bring Google to court for yet another lawsuite about what they can or cannot scrape from their website. When you have a nice site with good information, and Google just gives the users the data, you probably worry about the affect on your traffic. If it does affect traffic, then will the sites Google is grabbing the information from even remain active? Where will they get facts from when their facts pulling eliminates their sources?