Will Google Regret Tweaking Its Algorithm?Sunday, December 14th, 2008 by Harry Lewis
Google prides itself on the objectivity of the algorithm it uses for ranking search results. No payment for placement, and no editorial judgments being made behind closed doors. A recent interview with a top Google executive is creating some buzz that this may be changing just a bit.
Google offers a feature that enables users to re-order their own search results — useful if you expect to search for the same thing again and want it to appear at the top of the list. You would also be able to indicate that you don’t want a particular result to appear at all in the future. These are the faint square boxes to the right of search results — an up-arrow with a horizontal bar over it to promote a particular result, and an X to eliminate a result.
These re-orderings affect only your own subsequent searches. At least that’s the way things work right now. Here is the crucial passage in the TechCrunch interview:
[Google‚Äôs Vice President of Search Product and User Experience ¬†Marissa]¬†Mayer also talked about Google‚Äôs 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‚Äôs likely Google will use the data to at least make obvious changes. An example is if ‚Äúthousands of people‚Äù were to knock a search result off a search page, they‚Äôd be likely to make a change.
Now that raises a couple of interesting possibilities, as reported by two industry critics. The first is that a new front will be opened in the cat-and-mouse game with the search engine optimization companies. Perhaps, for example, you can get your competitor knocked off the first page of search results by getting enough users to do so individually. Google’s engineers are smart enough to counter such simple tactics, but perhaps not slightly more ingenious measures.
The other possibility is that there are human beings reviewing the patterns of movements, and making editorial judgments about which should be incorporated into the general search results. Mayer does say “they‚Äôd be likely to make a change,” and while this is just an interview and she probably wasn’t choosing her words as though she was under oath, it’s an interesting question just how the decision to re-order search results in response to user actions would be implemented.
As we discuss in Blown to Bits, there have long been individual cases of editorial judgment, though most complainants about their placement seem simply to have lousy web sites by Google’s explicit standards. One has to wonder if this latest tweak isn’t going to open a major can of worms. Happily, it’s the sort of thing that can be tested quietly, and abandoned quietly if it doesn’t work out well.