Google, Query Relaxation, and Advertisers

March 23, 2017

Most folks don’t know what a query relaxation process does. Think of a noose around your neck. If someone pulls the noose tight, you elicit a very specific result. If I remove the noose, you can frolic on your mobile device. Now substitute strict Boolean queries for a free text search. The Boolean search pulls the result set tight; that is, you get results in which the indexed words match the Boolean query. If a vendor tosses in semantic expansion which drags in concepts, synonyms, and inputs from other users’ queries, the noose is relaxed. You can breathe again.

Search vendors dependent on advertising control the scope of the result set. Yandex, we noted, is relaxing its queries. The reason? Relaxed queries allow an ad matching system more leeway. The idea is that if I search for “Kia Soul 2011 P22545R18” tire, an outfit like Google has to match with ads its system has been told want the keyword “Kia” or “Soul.”

But if the query is relaxed and expansion methods are in play, “Kia” becomes “car”, “vehicle,” “SUV” and “Soul” becomes “auto parts” and maybe “religion.”

Instantly, the ad matching system can go to the advertising pool and start putting more ads into the search results. Some of the ads may be helpful; for example, “auto parts.” Others for a Zen weekend might not be germane to a person looking for a set of radials.

Pretty boring stuff, right? The problem is that as the number of queries sent to old school desktop computers goes down, the opportunity to use ads goes down too. The fix?

Query expansion. Looser queries, more opportunities to display less and less relevant ads. Who is going to notice? Well, that’s a good question.

Now navigate to “AT&T, Other U.S. Advertisers Quit Google, YouTube over Extremist Videos.” The write up points out:

AT&T, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson and other major U.S. advertisers are pulling hundreds of millions of dollars in business from Google and its video service YouTube despite the Internet giant’s pledge this week to keep offensive and extremist content away from ads. AT&T said that it is halting all ad spending on Google except for search ads. That means AT&T ads will not run on YouTube or two million websites that take part in Google’s ad network.

On the surface, the allegations suggest that Google’s smart software is not smart enough to prevent an ad for a mobile phone company from appearing as a sponsor of a video the advertiser finds offensive. From my point of view, this is an example of what happens when revenue drives query relaxation. With relaxed queries, the advertiser’s message is “close enough” to the results list. Bingo. Google books revenue and the advertiser’s message is displayed.

In the good old days before mobile devices decimated the model, less relaxed queries and ad matching worked reasonably well. Today, relaxed queries are an easy way to generate revenue.

The counter argument is that relaxed queries are what “usage data say searchers want.” Right, that assurance an a dime will buy me what? Not much.

Net net: Buy ads and make sales is a mantra from a time past. Today’s world of search is filled with relaxed queries and less relevant result sets and less relevant, context aware ads.

Google will have to figure something out. Relaxed queries and ad matching is now big news and costing my favorite free online search outfit a lot of money. My suggestion to Google: Relax less. Embrace relevance, precision, and recall.

Users want an answer to their question. Advertisers want to make sales. Google wants money. Dare I say, “Pick two.”

Stephen E Arnold, March 23, 2017


One Response to “Google, Query Relaxation, and Advertisers”

  1. google on March 26th, 2017 4:53 am


    Google, Query Relaxation, and Advertisers : Stephen E. Arnold @ Beyond Search

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