Google is apparently planning the biggest shakeup in its search results page in a long time, according to the Wall Street Journal. The plan is apparently to use "semantic search" to analyze the meaning of words and phrases typed into the search query box and then return relevant answers instead of a simple list of ranked results. The move would mirror functionality already offered by Microsoft's Bing search engine, which offers direct answers on questions about flights, travel, and other queries.
Wolfram Alpha also offers similar functionality, presenting "reports" of answers to queries based on massive data sets. Google's Amit Singhai recently said that the company has been working on a massive "entity" database of information that's more contextually aware of content than what's currently on offer. Though it's unclear exactly what Google's database of "people, places and things" would consist of, it's likely that Google's strategy isn't entirely unlike what Wolfram Alpha has done.
The changes will purportedly begin arriving "in the coming months" and be integrated with its current results rather than as a separate product. It's also reported that Google may also use its semantic search technology to attempt to "identify information about specific entities" in a webpage in order to determine its search result ranking — a very significant change from the classic "PageRank" formula that depended more on incoming links to a page rather than the content on it.
Providing direct answers instead of links out to other pages would also fit in with Google's newest strategy of attempting to keep users engaged in its own properties — like Google+ — theoretically giving the company another way to sell itself to advertisers.