Google Biases: Real, Hoped For, or Imagined?

November 10, 2016

I don’t have a dog in this fight. Here at Beyond Search we point to open source documents and offer comments designed to separate the giblets from the goose feathers. Yep, that’s humor, gentle reader. Like it or not.

The write up “Opinion: Google Is Biased Toward Reputation-Damaging Content” pokes into an interesting subject. When I read the article, I thought, “Is this person a user of Proton Mail?”

The main point of the write up is that the Google relevance ranking method responds in an active manner to content which the “smart” software determines is negative. But people wrote the software, right? What’s up, people writing relevance ranking modules?

The write up states:

Google has worked very hard to interpret user intent when searches are conducted. It’s not easy to fathom what people may be seeking when they submit a keyword or a keyword phrase.

Yep, Google did take this approach prior to its initial public offering in 2004. Since then, I ask, “What changes did Google implement in relevance in the post IPO era?” I ask, “Did Google include some of the common procedures which have known weaknesses with regard to what lights the fires of the algorithms’ interests?”

The write up tells me:

Since Google cannot always divine a specific intention when a user submits a search query, it’s evolved to using something of a scattergun approach — it tries to provide a variety of the most likely sorts of things that people are generally seeking when submitting those keywords. When this is the name of a business or a person, Google commonly returns things like the official website of the subject, resumes, directory pages, profiles, business reviews and social media profiles. Part of the search results variety Google tries to present includes fresh content — newly published things like news articles, videos, images, blog posts and so on. [Emphasis added.]

Perhaps “fresh” content triggers the following relevance components? For example, fresh content signals change and change may mean that the “owner” of the Web page may be interested in buying AdWords. A boost for “new stuff” means that when a search result drifts lower over a span of a week or two, the willingness to buy AdWords goes up? I think about this question because it suggests that tuning certain methods provides a signal to the AdWords’ subsystems of people and code. I have described how such internal “janitors” within Google modules perform certain chores. Is this a “new” chore designed to create a pool of AdWords’ prospects? Alas, the write up does not explore this matter.

The write up points to a Googler’s public explanation of some of the relevance ranking methods in use today. That’s good information. But with the public presentations of Google systems and methods with which I am familiar, what’s revealed is like touching an elephant when one is blind. There is quite a bit more of the animal to explore and understand. In fact “understand” is pretty tough unless one is a Googler with access to other Googlers, the company’s internal database system, and the semi clear guidelines from whoever seems to be in charge at a particular time.

I highlighted this passage from the original write up as interesting:

I’ve worked on a number of cases in which all my research indicates my clients’ names have extremely low volumes of searches.  The negative materials are likely to receive no more clicks than the positive materials, according to my information, and, in many cases, they have fewer links.

Okay, so there’s no problem? If so, why is the write up headed down the Google distorts results path? My hunch is that the assurance is a way to keep Googzilla at bay. The author may want to work at the GOOG someday. Why be too feisty and remind the reader of the European Commission’s view of Google’s control of search results?

The write up concludes with a hope that Google says more about how it handles relevance. Yep, that’s a common request from the search engine optimization crowd.

My view from rural Kentucky is that there are a number of ways to have an impact on what Google presents in search results. Some of these methods exploit weaknesses in the most common algorithms used for basic functions within the Google construct. Other methods are available as well, but these are identified by trial and error by SEO wizards who flail for a way to make their clients’ content appear in the optimum place for one of the clients’ favorite keywords.

Three observations:

  • The current crop of search mavens at Google are in the business of working with what is already there. Think in terms of using a large, frequently modified, and increasingly inefficient system for determining relevance. That’s what the new hires confront. Fun stuff.
  • The present climate for relevance at Google is focused on dealing with the need to win in mobile search. The dominant market share in desktop search is not a given in the mobile world. Google is fragmenting its index for a reason. The old desktop model looks a bit like a 1990s Corvette. Interesting. Powerful. Old.
  • The need for revenue is putting more and more pressure on Google to make up for the mobile user behavior and the desktop user behavior in terms of search. Google is powerful, but different methods are needed to get closer to that $100 billion in revenue Eric Schmidt referenced in 2006. Relevance may be an opportunity.

My view is that Google is more than 15 years down the search road. Relevance is no longer defined by precision and recall. What’s important is reducing costs, increasing revenue, and dealing with the problems posed by Amazon, Facebook, Snapchat, et al.

Relevance is not high on the list of to dos in some search centric companies. Poking Google about relevance may produce some reactions. But not from me. I love the Google. Proton Mail is back in the index because Google allegedly made a “fix.” See. Smart algorithms need some human attention. If you buy a lot of AdWords, I would wager that some human Googlers will pay attention to you. Smart software isn’t everything once it alerts a Googler to activate the sensitivity function in the wetware.

Stephen E Arnold, November 10, 2016


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