NEW YORK -- Now that Google has emerged unscathed from its U.S. antitrust probe, the search company has free reign to transform its search engine with less fear of legal action from regulators.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission opted not to pursue a lawsuit against Google's search business. In its view, Google has not broken antitrust laws by promoting its own products over competitors' in its search results.
Google has long claimed -- and the FTC concurred -- that its recent changes are designed to give users a better, faster search experience. Google's ultimate goal is to build something like the Star Trek computer, able to directly and instantly answer users' queries.
Industry analysts largely agree that the FTC's decision allows Google to plow ahead with its plans to transform its search engine into an "answer engine."
"This will make it possible for Google to feel unafraid to do what it wants in search innovation," said Whit Andrews, analyst at Gartner.
In the last few years, Google has introduced services that, in many cases, simply provide answers to users' queries. Type in "temperature" and Google will give you a local weather report. Searching for famous people triggers a Google product called "Knowledge Graph," which displays a photo and some basic information about that person. Queries about local businesses result in a list of Google reviews and maps. The "Google Now" app for Android provides information based on your interests and calendar appointments -- without you ever opening the search engine. And some travel searches provide a list of flights and airfares.
The era of "10 blue links" -- once the core of Google's search results -- is being phased out.
The new responses are in many cases more helpful than a series of links, but they also take Google into dangerous territory: It's beginning to compete with many of the websites and online services that have come to rely on Google to drive search traffic to them. Several competitors have claimed that Google's new search is an example of a dominant company abusing its power to get rid of rivals.
The FTC didn't see it that way.
"In the U.S., it means Google can now choose to be more aggressive when it comes to promoting its offerings -- especially online travel, shopping search, and content-based search," said Sandeep Aggarwal, an independent search analyst.
Google claims its evolution in that direction was unaffected by the various antitrust probes.
"To be honest, just because we were in talks with the FTC, the notion that the investigation changed what we were going to do is plain and simple wrong," said Amit Singhal, head of Google's search business. "We held nothing back, and didn't launch anything prematurely because of any external conversation."
Google's search engine has experienced a "constant march forward," Singhal said, and every two to three years a major innovation comes along that radically advances the business.
What's the next big innovation?
"I would be so bold to predict that in the next two years, you'll have a conversational search engine that you can talk to like you're talking to me," Singhal said.
He thinks Google will be able to search automatically based on questions you ask your phone or computer, rather relying on you to type out a series of keywords. It's like Siri on steroids.
Direct answers are the Holy Grail, but it's one that could anger the content providers with whom Google maintains a symbiotic relationship.
"Search engines have an unspoken contract with publishers," said Danny Sullivan, a search industry analyst and editor of the Search Engine Land blog. "They copy information without necessarily getting explicit permission, and content providers are okay with that because they get traffic."
As those links transition to answers, content providers may start putting up more of a stink.
"The problem for the emperor is how to dominate and stay beloved," said Gartner's Andrews. "Google's challenge in this area is to realize the FTC decision allows it to do what it wants -- but not do that."