Google Wants My Help Ranking Pages?

The search giant’s foray into user feedback.

Americans conduct about 153 million Google searches every day. That’s 153 million daily views of the search engine’s famously sparse, famously profitable 10-link results page—a page that many of us interact with more frequently than we do members of our family, a page whose soothing colors and straightforward layout seems etched into the deepest recesses of our brains. It was no surprise, then, that many online reacted in horror last month when Google made a slight change in how it displays its results. If you’re logged in to any Google service, the engine now adds three extra elements to each link it serves you—one button lets you “vote up” that search result, another lets you remove the link from the page, and a third lets you add a comment.

But we’ll get to what the buttons do in a moment—the initial tragedy is visual. The first time I saw the buttons, I wondered if Google had been hacked. The Google results page is sacrosanct; seeing it suddenly adorned with widgets and animated sequences was as jarring as if I’d awoken one morning to discover the Statue of Liberty sporting a tuxedo T-shirt and a propeller beanie. I wasn’t the only one who was shocked: “Google search wasn’t broken,” TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington pointed out. “It’s one of the few things on the Internet that isn’t.” So why did Google screw with it?

In a blog post, the company explained that the new feature, which it calls SearchWiki, is a way to “tailor Google search results to best meet your needs.” The name seems intended to draw a comparison to Search Wikia, the ambitious effort by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to build a transparent, crowd-sourced search engine according to the same principles that govern his online encyclopedia. Wales’ search engine—a work in progress, and not much progress at that—collects users’ votes to determine results for a given query. At the moment, Google SearchWiki is far less ambitious. Ranking pages up or down with SearchWiki modifies only your own Google searches; your changes don’t affect how Google actually ranks Web pages.

Strictly speaking, then, SearchWiki is not really a wiki at all. Wikis are collaborative—when you add something to Wikipedia, other people can see and edit your work. Making a change to Google SearchWiki, on the other hand, is like rearranging the pages in your own copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica to put your favorite entries first. Doing so might make it a more satisfying read, but that’s about all it does. Consequently, SearchWiki is incredibly useful for vanity searches. When you search Google for “Farhad,” the first reference to yours truly shows up way down near the bottom of the page (a weak spot in Google’s algorithm, obviously). With SearchWiki, I can correct the error by pressing the up arrow next to that result. The link shoots up to the top of the page, and now and forever when I search for my first name, a link to me will be in its rightful place at the top. But alas, when you search for “Farhad,” you’ll still have to scroll down to get to a link to me.

Other than for rearranging vanity results, I saw few reasons to press SearchWiki’s buttons during the last few weeks. Like other critics, I found the system’s commenting feature especially unnecessary. Under each search result, SearchWiki lets you write a few words about any Google link. Unlike your personal rankings, these comments are public; they show up along with quotes from other people on a separate page that’s linked off the main results page (scroll to the bottom of any results page and click “See all notes for this SearchWiki” to read other people’s comments). But what is there to say about any given Google result? Not much, apparently. Most results carry no comments; where Googlers have taken the time to write something, it’s either banal praise, uninventive criticism, or a comment about the fact that they’re commenting—in other words, the usual Internet fare. Underneath the listing for Starbucks, someone has written “Shalom,” while another writes, “I hate starbucks.” For the New York Times, we find, “Hi all Snill0 is here.. I am the first one to comment!!! yayy.” Google’s own Google listing has drawn more than 970 comments, including, “test,” “testing,” and “How do these comments work? Ah, that’s cool! Are they really public?” My favorite, though, was this one: “The best search engine in the world, Probably.”

Perhaps my aversion to SearchWiki reflects my workmanlike use of Google—I accept what Google says, and I would rather go about clicking on its links than rearranging them. Like Arrington, I don’t often find that Google needs correcting. Most links seem to be pretty much where they should be—and even if there’s something wrong, who am I to say what should go where? This gets to what’s initially so disturbing about SearchWiki. After 10 years of delivering truth from on high, of giving us an algorithmic, rigorously analyzed picture of the Web, Google suddenly wants me to decide? It seems like a fundamental violation of our contract with Google, like your doctor asking you whether that mole on your arm needs to be removed, or your IT guy asking you whether it might be time to defrag your hard drive.  Hey, you’re the expert, why are you bothering me?

Among tech blogs, there’s been a clamor for Google to allow people to opt out of SearchWiki, but right now Google has no plans to let you turn it off.  This may be because of to the company’s long-term plans for SearchWiki. A spokeswoman told me that, depending on how people use the system, Google may eventually begin to incorporate SearchWiki votes into its rankings. If Google discovers that, say, a lot of folks are selecting a link to me as the Farhad who should be listed first in a Google search for my name—hint, hint—then the search engine may see that as a signal of that result’s quality, and will give that link a boost in everyone’s searches for Farhad.

For Google to begin to accept direct votes in its results may seem like a radical move. The company is, after all, famously protective of the purity of its algorithm, employing a team of hard-core scientists to constantly refine mathematical models that deliver the perfect results to your casual queries. As a matter of philosophy, Google eschews manual intervention: When it notices that spammers or Google bombers or other miscreants have found ways to game its system, its first instinct is to hone its algorithms to address the problem in a general way, not to manually kick people out of its index.

But if you think about Google’s aims, direct user input into rankings might not be such a poisonous idea. After all, it would be a mistake to think that Google’s results today are a reflection of something like objective truth. Indeed, while we may equate Google with other experts in our lives—with doctors and IT guys —the search engine’s domain is much fuzzier than most other fields. There is a single correct answer to the question, “Is this mole on my arm dangerous?”—and either your doctor can determine the answer or he can’t. But what’s the answer to the search engine query “Farhad”? Is it a link to the Wikipedia article for Iranian singer Farhad Mehrad? Or is it a link to the site for Afghan musician Farhad Darya? Or maybe it’s an archive of my stories at Salon? Or perhaps it’s something completely different—a link to Farhad’s TG, a popular Manga forum?

The right answer—whether people who type in “Farhad” are looking for Persian music, Afghan music, a lefty Web magazine, or Japanese comics—is that there is no right answer. Different people are looking for different things, and Google’s job is to determine which of those things each of those different people want. Today, Google does this by monitoring activity on the Web: Among many variables, it looks at how sites link to one another, it analyzes words on Web pages as well as in search queries, it looks at the freshness of different pages—and then it makes an extremely educated guess.

SearchWiki seems radical because it’s the first time Google is explicitly asking us to be a part of that process. In reality, we’ve been a part of that process all along. Every time you make a Web page, comment on a blog, post something to Facebook, or do any of the thousand other things you do on the Web each day, you’re contributing to Google’s ranking algorithm. Its original PageRank algorithm equated one page’s link to another as a kind of vote. So don’t be so worried that Google is now soliciting your advice directly; even despite those inane comments (which, really, could be eliminated), I’m betting SearchWiki won’t ruin Google. It may even improve it. After all, it isn’t called “The best search engine in the world, probably” for nothing.