Hit Boosting and Google

January 20, 2011

Well, well, well. The Google watchers have discovered hit boosting. “Hit boosting” is the must-have function in a real-world search system. Forget the research computing lab demos. In the real world, folks like Dick Cheney want his Web site at the top of a results list. Do you rely on fancy indexing methods or egg head numerical recipes? This goose doesn’t. “Hit boosting” is a short cut. There are many ways to make a certain result or hits from a specific site or about a certain topic come up first in a results list. If you want more impact than number one in a result list, the goose can slap a box on the results page with the boosted content front and center. To make the content more visible, the goose can force you to locate a tiny “close” link.

Hit boosting has apparently been discovered by non-search experts. Navigate to “Google Gins Search Formula to Favor Its Own Services.” Here’s the key passage in my opinion:

Harvard professor Ben Edelman and colleague Benjamin Lockwood found that Google’s algorithm links to Gmail, YouTube, and other house brands three times more often than other search engines. Search terms such as “mail”, “email”, “maps”, or “video” all yield top results featuring Google’s services, they found. The practice, which Yahoo! was also found to engage in – albeit less blatantly – puts the search engines’ interests ahead of users’ need for unbiased data about the most useful sites on the web, they warned.

Okay, I wonder if the researchers realize that content tuning is a function of a number of search systems. In fact, if there is no administrative control to “weight” content, teenagers can be pressed into duty to write stored queries or hard wired routines to make sure that the boosted content is at the top of a results list. What if the content is not relevant to the user’s query? It doesn’t matter. Hit boosting is not a particularly user-sensitive method. The content is put where it is required. Period.

Do users know about hit boosting? Nah. The computer is supposed to deliver “objective” results. Talk about cluelessness! Most results lists will contain useful information, but there can be lots of other stuff on a Web page. In fact, the Web page may not be a results list. The hits are in a container surrounded by other containers of quite interesting stuff.

Is Google doing something unusual? Nah. Categorical affirmatives are risky, but I can safely say that hit boosting is the norm in many search deployments. Google is just being logical.

Did Dick Cheney’s content appear at the top of the results list? You bet. Did he notice? No. But his Yale and Harvard helpers were on top of the situation. Just like the boosted content.

Amazing what some folks assume.

Stephen E Arnold, January 20, 2011



One Response to “Hit Boosting and Google”

  1. Paul O'Hagan on January 20th, 2011 4:02 pm

    Hi Stephen – like you it’s amazing to me that this would come as a surprise to folks. Not only is hit boosting common, it’s geographically tuned.

    For example, I live in Toronto Canada. If I use Google to search on “go” my first hit is about Go Transit, our local commuter train system.

    If, however I’m in Chicago and do the same search I get Go.com as my first hit.

    The real question to me is if companies are paying Google to effect their result placement.

    Paul O’Hagan

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