When I first read this article, Google Keeps Tweaking Its Search Engine, by Saul Hansell in the New York Times, I thought I ought not to comment. It seemed almost designed for pot shots, and I'm certainly aware of my own biases about search, innovation and the responsibility and conflicting forces that pressure the direction and decisions made by Google. However, after seeing Will Whim's grab for the low hanging fruit I thought I might as well add my own commentary.
Firstly, the title of the piece suggests a very marginal approach to innovation - is this a matter of the author's perspective, or an account of Google's attitude towards the future? My take on
That’s why Amit Singhal and hundreds of other Google engineers are constantly tweaking the company’s search engine in an elusive quest to close the gap between often and always.
is that it feels something of a disappointment. It sounds like the proverbial person pulling the blanket down to cover his feet, only to get a cold head - then pulling the blanket up over his head only to get cold feet. This analogy is actually reflected later in the article:
As always, tweaking and quality control involve a balancing act. “You make a change, and it affects some queries positively and others negatively,” Mr. Manber says. “You can’t only launch things that are 100 percent positive.”
The article quotes John Battelle:
“The fundamental value created by Google is the ranking,” says John Battelle, the chief executive of Federated Media, a blog ad network, and author of “The Search,” a book about Google.
This is a fascinating quote. It can be read to mean that the value to the user is the ranking, which magically returns the information (oops, I mean pages that hold the information) that the user was looking for. However, I suspect this is a misinterpretation. I believe that Battelle is talking here about the value to the owner of the page. This is a subtle difference. Returning a page that was useful to the user is one thing, but getting that user to the page and getting them to part with their money is another.
The article also hints at some of the impact that social media has had on main stream search, specifically the integration problem:
Freshness, which describes how many recently created or changed pages are included in a search result, is at the center of a constant debate in search: Is it better to provide new information or to display pages that have stood the test of time and are more likely to be of higher quality? Until now, Google has preferred pages old enough to attract others to link to them.
It is interesting to note how Google is mining social media and queries to help with main stream search (something which I discussed at the recent Future of Search conference):
If news sites or blog posts are actively writing about a topic, the model figures that it is one for which users are more likely to want current information. The model also examines Google’s own stream of billions of search queries, which Mr. Singhal believes is an even better monitor of global enthusiasm about a particular subject.
All told, the article continues journalism's love affair with Google and takes a few more steps than usual in terms of introducing technical elements.