In Google’s Opinion….

Wow, I've never seen this before. Check out Google's post, responding to the New York Times story about a bad actor who had figured out a way to make a living leveraging what he saw as holes in Google's approach to ranking. How Google ranks is the subject of…

Google Opinon.png

Wow, I’ve never seen this before. Check out Google’s post, responding to the New York Times story about a bad actor who had figured out a way to make a living leveraging what he saw as holes in Google’s approach to ranking.

How Google ranks is the subject of increasing scrutiny, including and particularly in Europe.

From Google’s blog:

Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live.

What I find fascinating is the way Google handled this. Read this carefully:

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

What word stands out? Yep, “opinion.”

Think on that for a second. If ever there was an argument that algorithms are subjective, there it is.

(Oh, and by the way, the last paragraph in the blog post clearly is directed at the regulators in Europe, if you think about it….)

25 thoughts on “In Google’s Opinion….”

  1. Well that’s pretty darn scary!

    But being the average Jane that I am, I didn’t really compute what the heck they said but it seems like they’re just sticking their finger in the proverbial dike.

    A stop gap solution if I ever saw one and yes, subjective.

  2. Algorithms are subjective, and there is no way around that. If they weren’t, if there was only 1 search algorithm, there would only be 1 search company. All the search engine have their on “secret sauce” to try to make sure they provide the most relevant data to you when you search, this is no different.

    The results you get on any site are going to be that particular developers “opinion” of what you really want. Why would make any difference that Google is providing you with their opinion of what your really after?

    There is always going to be hoopla about Google’s search ranking algorithm, because gaming it can make you millions and ignoring it can cost you millions. I can almost promise that Bing is doing the same thing in regards to services in search results that Google does? Does that make it a bad thing? Not at all, its business. At the end of the day Google’s responsibility is to the share holders first and foremost and to the customers second. This is the way any multi-billion dollar corporation is run. Does that make it right? Probably not, but there isn’t anything your going to do to change it either.

    Personally, I would pay a little less attention to the ways Google tweaks page rank. They are going to change it, it is going to be a mystery always. People are always going to try to figure out ways to game it and Google will figure out ways to stop that from happening. Proverbial cat and mouse until Google falls or some other search engine takes over (No time soon).


  3. I think I may have just taken a cue from the Vitaly Borker School of SEO.

    I made a comment here that was uninformed and therefore not too bright (negative), but I was the first in the comments list(positive…?)

  4. John – Google can’t possibly have hard and fast empirical evidence users’ experience is pegged at 10 or fail whaling at 1 in every case. The best they can do is aggregate feedback (programmatically) and let that be their guide.

    Now, if we can conclude Google is punishing retailers based on certain criteria (affinity, cust sat, whatever) THAT can be gamed for good effect by competitors. Possibly MORE easily than earning their own positive feedback.

    I can see Vitaly paying his SEO wonks to put up bogus bad reviews and further gaming for his advantage (unless his domain has a death sentence…)

  5. There are probably more than a few PhDs in someone’s future for trying to figure out the ethics of search. As Christian said, algorithms are subjective by their nature, because they are predicated on a specific, arbitrary definition of value, a concept that no marketplace has ever unanimously agreed on. I understand the squirming about Google imposing its ‘opinion’ on this kind of thing, but in an imperfect world like this I’m just as happy that they give a damn about their own credibility.

    What a fascinating episode…

  6. I wish I could comment on their blog and tell them their nofollow rule is bullshit. I’ve seen crap get indexed into their search engine even with that practice in place here and there. The way Google gets around shit to mine info is more powerful than most blocks you can put in place even if you play by their rules.

  7. The latter commenters are getting it right, but I believe the “opinion” in that sentence refers to the fact our web search results are protected speech in the First Amendment sense. Court cases in the U.S. (search for SearchKing or Kinderstart) have ruled that Google’s search results are opinion.

    This particular situation serves to demonstrate that fact: Google decided to write an algorithm to tackle the issue reported in the New York Times. We chose which signals to incorporate and how to blend them. Ultimately, although the results that emerge from that process are algorithmic, I would absolutely defend that they’re also our opinion as well, not some mathematically objective truth.

    Here’s how I phrased it in 2006 in an interview with John that appeared on this site: “When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google. But algorithms aren’t magic; they don’t leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way.”

  8. SEO guys are very happy about this change in google algorithm.
    Now SEO companies can promote their clients’ sites but demoting competing sites.
    The gates of hell are open. SEO is huge business. They can flood the web with negative opinions once it will be profitable for their business.

  9. More and more, the issue is not how Google ranks the content of others but that Google ranks its own content ahead of all others – regardless of its quality.

  10. To Matt Catts
    How much time does it take to test a new algorithm?
    You need a certain time to evaluate it whatever method you use for experiment evaluation — human judges or online experiments
    I doubt very much that this algorithm was developed as a response to NY Times. Yes, it might be developed BEFORE but not on one week

  11. (a) opinon or opinion
    (b) what will the EU make of this especially after Foundem complained about GG for downgrading them.
    (c) Where’s the list of “hundreds of other companies” that Amit refers to?
    (d) Will Google penalise big companies like utilities, transport or telcos?

  12. “I doubt very much that this algorithm was developed as a response to NY Times.”

    Anthony, I had a ringside seat, so I know it was. We still did tons of testing (e.g. running hundreds of thousands of queries to see changes), but the new algorithm happened in response to that article.

    Mor, you raise an important point too: “Interestingly, some time between 2002 and 2009 Google dropped that reference from their corporate “tech page”. “PageRank performs an objective measurement…” became “PageRank reflects our view of the importance…”. ”

    I had a ringside seat for that one too; here’s my informal/personal summary. SearchKing sued Google and the resulting court case ruled that Google’s actions were protected under the first amendment.

    Later, KinderStart sued Google. You would think that the SearchKing case would cover the issue, but part of KinderStart’s argument was that Google talked about the mathematical aspects of PageRank in our website documentation. KinderStart not only lost that lawsuit, but KinderStart’s lawyer was sanctioned for making claims he couldn’t back up. See for more info.

    After the KinderStart lawsuit, we went through our website documentation. Even though Google won the case, we tried to clarify where possible that although we employ algorithms in our rankings, ultimately we consider our search results to be our opinion.

    For example, what should rank number one for the query [barack obama]? Obama’s personal website, or the White House? What should rank #2, or #10? The fact is, there’s no objectively “correct” way to rank those results–reasonable people can disagree whether Obama’s Twitter or Facebook page should rank higher than (say) a Chicago Tribune article about Obama.

    That single point, which courts have agreed with, proves that there’s no universally agreed-upon way to rank search results in response to a query. Therefore, web rankings (even if generated by an algorithm) are are an expression of that search engine’s particular philosophy.

    In this case, Google chose to dedicate engineers to write a new algorithm that we believe improves our web rankings. If you consider fledgling search engines such as Blekko and DuckDuckGo, they chose to remove the Decor My Eyes site completely–you can’t find the website even if you search for the exact url by name on their sites. That’s their philosophical choice–their opinion of how best to handle such searches, and I support their decision. I think each search engine needs to be free to rank results in the way that they think is best, and if people believe one search engine returns better results, it’s easy to switch. That’s how Google went from 0% market share to its current position.

  13. Great clarifications, Matt.

    Are European regulators likely to be concerned about a company with Google’s current position whose opinion changes so quickly and dramatically in response to a single front-page story in an American newspaper?

  14. Matt, did Google take into consideration the extremely likely eventuality that highly competitive, unscrupulous people will game the new algorithm by posting scads of fake bad reviews of their competitors?

    Business online is cutthroat, and it can be anywhere between difficult and impossible to remove fake reviews, much less to identify them.

    In the past, the bad reviews were just bad reviews. Now they’re a direct line toward tanking someone’s search placement.

    This scares me.

  15. Isn’t this story less of an issue if Google is more transparent about how it ranks sites the way they do? For example, Blekko shows inbound links and weighting, exposing more of their algorithm, which would’ve altered the coverage of this story, particularly in regards to implicating Get Satisfaction.

    Google has such a massive foot hold in search, and while it may be painful to give away a few more pieces of the secret recipe, I believe it could keep Google out and above most of these types of frays.

    I riff a bit more on it here:

  16. Morgan, I think a lot about transparency and the surrounding issues, and I do a lot of communication like webmaster videos to try to provide insight into how and why Google works. We’ve certainly seen examples where transparency didn’t help with traction (the Wikia Search project being the most well-known recent example). I love that Blekko is experimenting with different types of transparency–not to mention much more manual curation. That’s an expression of their philosophy, I wish them well, and I’ll be interested to see how users respond to that.

  17. Not unlike commenters to the repost of this at BusinessInsider, I don’t think y’all are getting the import of this story.

    The news is not whether algorithms are subjective or not. Reasonable people can disagree on that point.

    The news Mr. Battelle is reporting is that, for the first time in their 12 year history, Google is saying algorithms are subjective.

    That may be a very inside baseball point (or, as I said at SAI, “kremlinological”), but I think that’s what has John relatively excited.

  18. Matt,

    Blekko did not totally remove decormyeyes — you can still see the incoming links. I suppose I’m not surprised that so many newspaper articles about this site speculated about the inlink issue without checking the actual data, easily available on Blekko. Kudos to Morgan’s blog post.

    As for the freedom of search engines to make editorial decisions, keep in mind that companies with dominant market share aren’t the same as ones with small market share.

  19. I think what’s also key is that this confirms not just that its “opinion,” but that Google has the power to put their finger anywhere they want on the scale to adjust the rankings to their liking – and has clearly done so before in the case of competitive commerce sites.

  20. Thanks Matt,

    And I am a big fan of your videos and your philosophy and approach to representing Google. Really enjoyed your #pubcon keynote too 🙂

    I guess my question is do you think that being more open about the algorithm would 1) prevented the business owner to operate under the radar for so long 2) keep such a harsh story being written and 3) reduce future black hat and other malicious attempts at gaming Google?

    I think the answer is definitely yes on 2, but that could be an edge case, and 1 and 3 I know my thoughts; but can see other arguments too.

  21. Thanks Greg, I’m glad you liked the post. I too was amazed at how little fact checking was in the piece and also how big of a hurdle Google gives itself in keeping the trust of it’s users by keeping all of that data secret. (Of course the make billions for their trouble :))

  22. The most incredible thing I find about this article is the misspelling of the article’s subject matter, “opinion” which is supposed to be spelled “o-p-i-n-i-o-n”, NOT the way you spell it, “o-p-i-n-o-n”.

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