free html hit counter The Theme Here Is Humans, Editorial Opinion Parameters Be Damned - John Battelle's Search Blog

The Theme Here Is Humans, Editorial Opinion Parameters Be Damned

By - August 25, 2006

The recent news that Google has been granted a patent on “System and method for supporting editorial opinion in the ranking of search results ” has been taken generally as a sign that Google may delve deeper into the world of social search, which was a hot topic of conversation at the recent Search Engine Strategies Conference (the one I missed due to my shoulder surgery).

But what I find interesting about it is the core: editorial opinion. At some point, algorithms have mothers, and those mothers have opinions. In the related art section, the patent application notes that Ask uses real editors to help it determine results, but that those humans don’t scale:

AskJeeves ( generalizes the application of editorial opinion to a collection of pages. Their editors identify a set of pages that share a common theme (e.g., home pages of airports) and associate this set of pages with specific trigger words (e.g., the word “airport”). When one of the trigger words appears in the query, they present the user with a concise representation of the associated set of pages, allowing the user to choose one. Again, the scope of this technique is restricted to the set of pages that were reviewed by the editors, which tends to be many orders of magnitude smaller than the set of useful pages on the World Wide Web.

Yet this patent very clearly keeps the door wide open for samesaid humans. Quoting from the patent again:

Query themes refer to topics found to be commonly occurring in search queries deployed by users in the network … Editors may, in an implementation consistent with the present invention, develop these query themes based on an examination of search query logs and determining categories of information for which people are entering queries. Exemplary query themes may be “sites that provide free software downloads” or “sites that help people find an accommodation.”

Also critical to the patent is the development of “favored” and “non-favored” sources of information and “editorial opinion parameters”: “the editorial opinion parameter causes the rank of those objects corresponding to favored sources to be increased and a rank of those objects corresponding to non-favored sources to be decreased.”

In short, this is a patent for an algorithm of editorial judgement. It turns on human input, and will, if implemented, but tuned by humans as its shortcomings are exposed.

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5 thoughts on “The Theme Here Is Humans, Editorial Opinion Parameters Be Damned

  1. It sounds as though Google is acknowledging that for certain types of searches — “sites that provide free software downloads” or “sites that help people find an accommodation” — pure algorithms may not be enough.

    And here’s a possible conflict: If Google starts using editors to help with certain searches, will they be tempted to direct people more often to its own free software, or other of its own services that may benefit from editors’ help? That’s a dangerous step away from its goal of offering unbiased results.

  2. MikeM says:

    The results now are plenty biased now. Biased towards anyone who can SEO to PageRank. More often relevancy is compromized.
    Editing for certain high paying categories sounds smart.
    I sense they will take a mix of social bookmark popularity, maybe looking over the shoulders of, Furl, Digg and Notebook and match that popularity with those advertisers in the queue.

  3. PeterMHoward says:

    I wonder though, if the presence of human-edited search results would open Google up worse to claims that they’re unfairly biased for or against certain sites

    Google’s defence in numerous silly lawsuits seems to be that as their results are determined by algorithms they can’t be held liable for how those results appear…


  4. Joe Hunkins says:

    “I don’t trust humans!”
    Anonymous Alien Algorithm

  5. Franz says:

    If Google starts to use this human editing process, it cannot maintain the ‘unbiased because its only computers’ mantra they keep all the time.

    But, more importantly, if Google uses editorial selection, it would most certainly be a media company, just like a tv-station or newspaper that selects information for you. Which means that they could be subject to the laws for media diversity, which would not allow them to have 90 precent market shares in a lot of European countries, for example..

    A Dutch/Australian documentary on Google asks these questions already, and Google employees don’t seem to have an answer ready..: