Fifteen years after Google Inc. was started by two Stanford graduate students, the giant Internet company used the Menlo Park, Calif., garage that housed the company's first office to show off some recent advances in its search technology.
The changes unveiled last week include a subtle redesign of the Google mobile apps for Android and Apple devices, intended to make it easier to ask spoken questions in more conversational phrases. Google is also adding a feature that will show clickable samples of songs or works of art in a carousel across the top of a computer screen, in response to questions about music or art.
Another new feature will show comparative information, side by side, when users ask about the nutritional qualities of two foods, for example. And in a change that is less obvious, but perhaps more significant, Google Vice President Amit Singhal also disclosed that the company has revamped its algorithms to accommodate more complex searches, in what he described as the most significant overhaul since 2010 in the underlying formulas that power Google's search engine.
Comparing the change to switching out jet engines while an airplane is in midflight, Singhal said, "Our algorithm had to go through some fundamental rethinking of how we are going to keep our results relevant," as people ask increasingly complex questions.
While most of the changes build on new features and services that Google has been introducing in the past year, the company used the occasion of its 15th anniversary to talk about its progress toward making search more useful and relevant.
"Google will keep reinventing itself to give you all the answers you need in a simple, intuitive experience," Singhal said. Holding up one of the company's wearable Glass devices, he added, "Someday having to pull a cellphone out of your pocket to search will feel as archaic as a dial-up modem."
The company was officially incorporated on Sept. 4, 1998, according to documents on file with the California Secretary of State's office, but Google usually celebrates the anniversary of its launch at the end of September, for reasons that aren't clear, a spokeswoman said.
Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed their original search formulas at Stanford. At the time they launched the company, the dot-com boom was heating up and office space was hard to find. But recent Stanford graduate student Susan Wojcicki was looking for help paying her mortgage and offered to rent out her garage.
Brin and Page worked from the home on Menlo Park's Santa Margarita Avenue for about five months, until the company had grown to seven employees and the founders decided they needed more room, Wojcicki told reporters Thursday.
"At the time I didn't really know what to think about this," added Wojcicki, who is now the company's senior vice president for advertising. Google bought the house, on a quiet residential street, a few years ago, and it's now mostly unoccupied.
In the 15 years since Google entered what was then a crowded market of Internet search engines, the company has become an online behemoth, reporting more than $50 billion in revenue last year.
Google, meanwhile, has been constantly refining its search technology, analyzing data from millions of previous searches to predict which kinds of results will be most useful. It's also added voice-enabled features and the ability to retrieve relevant information from other Google services, such as Gmail and Calendar, in an effort to become more like a personal assistant, too.
"We're trying to transform the way that people interact with Google, from the days of the traditional empty search box and links to results, to where now it's more like having a conversation with a personal assistant that is trying to help me with my day," said Scott Huffman, a Google vice president for search and voice products, in a recent interview.