Google Now Editing Search Results

December 14, 2008

Blabber

Google made an admission this week, according to this story from The Register:

Google this week admitted that its staff will pick and choose what appears in its search results. It’s a historic statement – and nobody has yet grasped its significance.

Not so very long ago, Google disclaimed responsibility for its search results by explaining that these were chosen by a computer algorithm. The disclaimer lives on at Google News, where we are assured that:

The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.

A few years ago, Google’s apparently unimpeachable objectivity got some people very excited, and technology utopians began to herald Google as the conduit for a new form of democracy. Google was only too pleased to encourage this view. It explained that its algorithm “relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. “

Quite interesting. Now why would Google change from an algorithm to manual selection?

This week Marissa Meyer explained that editorial judgments will play a key role in Google searches. It was reported by Tech Crunch proprietor Michael Arrington – who Nick Carr called the “Madam of the Web 2.0 Brothel” – but its significance wasn’t noted. The irony flew safely over his head at 30,000 feet. Arrington observed:

Mayer also talked about Google’s use of user data created by actions on Wiki search to improve search results on Google in general. For now that data is not being used to change overall search results, she said. But in the future it’s likely Google will use the data to at least make obvious changes. An example is if “thousands of people” were to knock a search result off a search page, they’d be likely to make a change.

Now what, you may be thinking, is an “obvious change”? Is it one that is frivolous? (Thereby introducing a Google Frivolitimeter™ [Beta]). Or is it one that goes against the grain of the consensus? If so, then who decides what the consensus must be? Make no mistake, Google is moving into new territory: not only making arbitrary, editorial choices – really no different to Fox News, say, or any other media organization. It’s now in the business of validating and manufacturing consent: not only reporting what people say, but how you should think.

Who’s hand is upon the wheel, here?

I have not trusted Google for a few months now; yea, since they went around bashing the PageRank of good blogs left and right, and elevating the crappy splogs’ PageRanks with their constant stream of diet pill ads. So this is the icing on the cake. How do you feel, knowing that Google will cast a heavy editing shadow over the Internet?

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10 Responses to “Google Now Editing Search Results”

  1. aldon @ orient lodge Says:

    I’m not sure that the article in the Register is particularly accurate or informative. As a person who has written numerous computer algorithms, I’ve always wondered where people thought that these computer algorithms come from. They come from people writing programs to achieve specific goals.

    Google’s goals, as best as I can tell, have always been to return search results that most closely match what the searcher is looking for. How do you tune these algorithms to be as effective as possible? Humans have to pick and chose how the algorithms should work.

    As far as I can tell, the algorithms are at least as objective, fair, and accurate as any news article which has written and edited by humans.

    • Rebecca Says:

      Aldon, you make a good point. But if the algorithm has served so well for so long, why does Google suddenly feel compelled to manually edit their searches, now?

      And I do have to contend with your point:

      Google’s goals, as best as I can tell, have always been to return search results that most closely match what the searcher is looking for.

      Google’s goals have been to return search results that they feel is relevant to what the searcher is looking for, I believe.

  2. Karen Says:

    It figures. Hey, I found a fun add-on for firefox. It lets you see links in blogs that are do follow or not. Kinda interesting. Like, this comment doesn’t give me link juice. Which is ok because that is not why I comment. Just kind of fun to see what does and what doesn’t especially on blogs that are so “trying to kiss Googles butt”.

    • Rebecca Says:

      Karen, I wish I could use Firefox, but I have so many problems with it that I got rid of it. I did love those addons!!

      FYI: all blogs are generated as “no follow” by default. So it’s not like blogs are trying to kiss Google’s butt. But I do take delight in the plugins that make blogs “follow” because it continues to mess with Google’s plan to control linkage. I used the No Follow Free plugin for a while but it messed with some ajax functionality, and I never bothered to restore it.

      I always appreciate your comments, especially because we now they are “no follow” and you are commenting just because you want to comment. So that gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. 😀

  3. Nicole Says:

    I’m with you on your thoughts about this whole thing. I wish Google would return to where their main objectives were at the very start. Obviously they “own” the Internet in some ways, and I do rely on them for many many of my online needs, but it seems that as of recent times, they care more about certain sites and less about those that are honestly creating content that is worth something.
    And I’m totally with you about the splogs. It makes me SO mad when I go to a site, and everything on the first page is dietpills, eyeglasses and insurance stuff and they have a PR3 or 4. Whatever. I have worked hard to get my PR and if they take it away, there would be no real reason for it except they are being stingy.

    I love your blog.

  4. aldon @ orient lodge Says:

    Rebecca,

    A few different thoughts on this. First Google is constantly trying to adjust its algorithms to as effectively return useful information as possible. As sites, like spam blogs, try to take advantage of current understandings of how the algorithms work, the algorithms become less effective as spam rises to the top. Hence, if they are going to return good results, they really need to constantly change the way their algorithms work. This is compounded by Web 2.0 type changes which affect the way people interact with websites, and a lot of other changes in how the web is used.

    So, I think your assumption about Google and spam blogs might be a bit off. As I see it, they are adjusting their algorithms to try and make it so very smart spam bloggers don’t completely dominate searches. In doing so, some spam bloggers are very smart and manage to stay high in rankings. Some good blogs end up slipping, even though they aren’t spam.

    • Rebecca Says:

      Aldon, thanks for your input. I’m still not convinced that this move of Google is the best for the search engine world; it seems best for Google. Which, since they are a business, is understandable. But it must be remembered that they are a business, and do things for their bottom line, not out of the goodness of their hearts. Therefore, I am highly suspect of this. Plus, they have a pretty bad track record of censoring things (searches in China for the Chinese, etc).

  5. eam Says:

    this is huge. there’s one thing about Google assuring internet users: “The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.” but admitting now that they will actually have a staff of people manually ‘altering’ search results is a totally different story. that is just one more step away from democracy if we have one in the internet…

    i understand what aldon is saying about computer algorithms- humans wrote them sure, using specific guidelines and tweaks to even change results and outcomes but no one’s standing by to monitor the results whether accurate or not because you just “entrust” the whole process to the computer. with computer advancements, it’s very unlikely they will be prone to error.

    Placing humans to monitor, “pick and choose what appears in its search results” is more likely to cause errors because humans are more prone to misjudge. humans have biases. computers don’t (regardless of it being set to work initially by humans). humans are self-serving. it will continue to PICK AND CHOOSE what serves its company better or who pays them more… such is the case of the (paid) search results appearing not only in Google but elsewhere.

    Search using computer generated algorithms is imperfect as it is, to have people editing the results will just make it worse. It’s hard for me to believe that Google and other search engines for that matter, are really doing its best to serve its users objectively and accurately- they are running a business after all, and in reality of business- they are all prone to serving their interests firsts before its users…

  6. Mama BoK Says:

    I read about this too.. but you know how i feel about google.. so what if this person or staff of Google is having a bad hair day..?? But they are not called Lord google for nothing eh.