Friday, September 17, 2010

Competition in an Instant



The Wall Street Journal ran “a debate” about fairness in search today. In it, Google fellow and engineer Amit Singhal discussed how search has evolved to meet users needs. It’s an interesting read, here is Amit’s oped:

Competition in an Instant
By Amit Singhal
Published: September 17, 2010

Last week, "Googling something" took on a whole new meaning. Instead of typing your question into the search box and hitting Enter, our newest invention—Google Instant—shows constantly evolving results based on the individual letters you type.

Instant is just the latest in a long line of search improvements. Five years ago, search results were just "ten blue links"—simple web pages with some text. Today search engines provide answers in the form of images, books, news, music, maps and even "real time" results from sites such as Twitter.

The reason for all these improvements is simple: It's what you want. When you type in "weather" (or just "w" in the case of Google Instant), you want the weather forecast right away—not a collection of links about meteorology. Type in "flights to San Francisco," and you most likely want flight options and prices, not more links asking you to enter the same query again.

We know these things with a fair degree of certainty. We hire lots of great computer scientists, psychologists, and linguists, who all contribute to the quality of our results. We carefully analyze how people use Google, and what they want. And what they want is quite obvious: the most useful, relevant results, as quickly as possible.

Sounds pretty simple. But as Google has become a bigger part of people's lives, a handful of critics and competitors have raised questions about the "fairness" of our search engine—why do some websites get higher rankings than others?

It's important to remember that we built Google to delight our users—not necessarily website owners. Given that not every website can be at the top of the results, or even appear on the first page of our results, it's not surprising that some less relevant, lower-quality websites will be unhappy with their rankings. Some might say that an alphabetical listing or a perfectly randomized list would be most "fair"—but that would clearly be pretty useless for users.

People often ask how we rank our "own" content, like maps, news or images. In the case of images or news, it's not actually Google's content, but rather snippets and links to content offered by publishers. We're merely grouping particular types of content together to make things easier for users.

In other cases, we might show you a Google Map when you search for an address. But our users expect that, and we make a point of including competing map services in our search results (go ahead, search for "maps" in Google). And sometimes users just want quick answers. If you type "100 US dollars in British pounds," for example, you probably want to know that it's "£63.9p"—not just see links to currency conversion websites.

Google's search algorithm is actually one of the world's worst kept secrets. PageRank, one of our allegedly "secret ingredients," is a formula that can be found in its entirety everywhere from academic journals to Wikipedia. We provide more information about our ranking signals than any other search engine. We operate a webmaster forum, provide tips and YouTube videos, and offer diagnostic tools that help websites identify problems.

Making our systems 100% transparent would not help users, but it would help the bad guys and spammers who try game the system. When you type "Nigeria" you probably want to learn about the country. You probably don't want to see a bunch of sites from folks offering to send you money . . . if you would only give them your bank account number!

We may be the world's most popular search engine, but at the end of the day our competition is literally just one click away. If we messed with results in a way that didn't serve our users' interests, they would and should simply go elsewhere—not just to other search engines like Bing, but to specialized sites like Amazon, eBay or Zillow. People are increasingly experiencing the Web through social networks like Facebook. And mobile and tablet apps are a newer alternative for accessing information. Search engines aren't the "gatekeepers" that critics claim. For example, according to the research firm Compete, Google is responsible for only 19% of traffic to WSJ.com.

Investment and innovation are considered strong indicators of a competitive marketplace. Last week's launch of Google Instant was a big bet for us—both in terms of the complexity of the computer science and the huge demands it puts on our systems. Competition for eyeballs on the Web helps drive that risk-taking and innovation because consumers really do have the freedom to vote with their clicks and choose another search engine or website. In an industry focused on tough questions, that's clearly the right answer.

Mr. Singhal is a Google fellow who has worked in the field of search for over 15 years, first as an academic researcher and now as an engineer.

3 comments:

Technology Tester said...
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Ækta said...

Are you telling people what they want to hear or have you added a bit of spice in the search results, so they may gather more knowledge on a particular search topic?

Ækta said...

Are you Directing people towards what they want to hear or have you added a bit of spice in the search results, so they may gather more knowledge or expand their horizons on a particular search topic? I even think a good addition would be an opposite search result on certain searches so people realise the wide diversity of possible related websites. Could be added to an algorithm, relating to one out of every x listed. This would require a lot of expertise to formulate but the benefits would improve society knowledge over the short and long term. Maybe this comment relates to certain types of searches and obviously not all.