Under embargo last week, I spoke to Marissa Mayer about Google search. I do this often, as part of the normal news cycle, but this time was different. After clearing her throat with some 7th birthday news, she dropped the other shoe – Google is now claiming that its index is three times bigger than its competition. “Wow!” I said. “How can you tell?” “Tests we’ve done,” Mayer responded. “But…those are the same tests we’ve been debating since August, right? The same tests Yahoo claims are inconclusive and not to be trusted!”
Yup, that’s right. The index wars are over, at least in terms of raw counting. Google has taken its ball and gone home. The company has decided to take the McDonalds like number off its website – “8 billion pages served…”, and instead simply claim to be more comprehensive. “Google is the most comprehensive search engine by far,” Mayer told me. Can she prove that? Not easily. But there you have it.
Problem is, while Google is clearly sincere in making this claim – I don’t doubt they believe it – the company refuses to call out any numbers or walk anyone through how they can prove it (other than a battery of disputed tests that honestly, no single person could reliably execute anyway).
In fact, this announcement, tied to Google’s 7th birthday, is a major exercise in changing the rules of the game. Google has been increasing its index of late, Marissa said, and many out there have noticed it, including many commentors on this and other sites. The company was getting ready to back this claim, that’s for sure. It’s clear that this is a response to Yahoo’s earlier announcement on index size. To pretend otherwise is naive. Second, by refusing to count anymore, Google is forcing the debate back to relevance, where, honestly, it really belongs.
I asked Marissa that since Yahoo claims 20+ billion documents, and Google claims to be three times larger, might not folks simply presume that Google has 60 billion documents in its index? The answer goes to the heart of the index debate in the first place: Google does not count the way Yahoo seems to, so the comparison is apples to oranges. Google is counting one way, Yahoo another. So the numbers don’t add up.
I then asked Marissa if Google would be open to having a third party, agreed to by both sides, settle this in some reliable fashion. She said sure, but as she answered, I realized this will never happen. Both sides think they are right, and both sides will never divulge how they go about counting in the first place. So where are we left? Pretty much where we’ve been, only now, it’s all about who you believe. So who’s more comprehensive? Depends who you ask…..
Yahoo sent me a response late tonight. Here it is, in its entirety:
“We congratulate Google on removing the index size number from its homepage and recognizing that it is a meaningless number. As we’ve said in the past, what matters is that consumers find what they are looking for and we invite Google users to compare their results to Yahoo! Search at http://search.yahoo.com.”
Er, sorry Yahoo. I don’t buy that one. Why on earth, then, did you announce that 20 billion number in the first place?
Well, at least this is the end of it. I’m not sure either company came off well in this particular dust up, but it seems to have been fought to some kind of a draw, at least for now.
Update: Eric Schmidt spoke with Markoff for this Times piece, in which he announces that Google will encourage folks to “guess” the size of Google’s index. And the closest person will win something. Maybe. Sheesh.