One of the largest behind-the-scenes updates to Google's search technology in three years is under way, as the company reworks its computing muscle.
On Monday evening, Google quietly began soliciting feedback for "Caffeine," a new system for Web searches that is being tested completely separately from the live search results currently found through Google.com.
Google makes almost constant changes to its search algorithms and infrastructure, but it hasn't made an update of this magnitude since 2006, said Matt Cutts, a principal engineer at Google who is considered one of the driving forces behind its approach to search.
Think of Caffeine as a redeployment of the computing network that Google uses to connect searchers and results. "We want to make a system that is more robust, that can do more--and do more faster," Cutts said.
Google said it is not changing the user interface as part of the Caffeine update, nor does the update affect the ranking of ads on the search engine. So the average user trying to find a new digital camera or directions to the restaurant likely won't be surprised by how the results are presented.
But they might notice that things have gotten a little faster: speed is a side benefit of the decision to focus on improving how documents are indexed with the new update, Cutts said.
Those responsible for search engine optimization at their companies or clients, however, are just starting to get busy. The changes to Google's indexing methods will likely have an impact on the way Web sites are presented on the extremely important first page of search results, hence the need for testing and feedback.
For example, search blogs such as SearchEngineWatch.com noted that Wikipedia results seem to have been pushed a little further down the page in the sandboxed search system.
That's not necessarily indicative of how the results would be presented, once Caffeine goes live, but it is evidence that the update will require those dependent on Google to drive traffic to their sites to study the changes. For now, Google is not sharing many details regarding how it reworked its back-end architecture and indexing process with Caffeine.
Cutts said the changes that are coming along with Caffeine have been in the works for months, implying that the launch of Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo's subsequent decision to finally pull the plug on its own search efforts had little to do with the planning for Caffeine. But it does illustrate that while search is a constantly evolving product, serious infrastructure updates are needed to keep the trains running on time. This was perhaps what Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz had in mind as she reviewed what it would cost to just maintain Yahoo's current search commitment, let alone a renewed effort to gain share: Yahoo expects to save a ton in capital expenditures as a result of the outsourcing deal.
Google designs much of its own infrastructure, developing its own servers and piling them together in modular shipping containers. It's not clear whether any changes are being made to the basic Google server itself, but Cutts observed on his own blog that "Caffeine is a radical revamp (more like a complete rewrite) of large parts of our system," which may entail more than just updating the search index.
The Caffeine preview can be found here, and feedback is encouraged, both to Google, and right on this page.