Google’s ranking algorithm guru Amit Singhal has a message for any regulators thinking about meddling with search: Ranking search results is really, really hard.
In a post at Google’s policy blog, Amit mentions that he’s been reading about potential regulation of search rankings, and muses about the difficulty of search and Google’s philosophy.
He is very careful not to actually say that regulation is a bad idea. In fact, he doesn’t explicitly make any connection between the regulatory question and the rest of his post.
But the message is loud and clear: Back off, governments, this is way above your pay grade. We’re Google, and even we haven’t figured out the right way to do this.
In fact, Google points out that it has such a hard time ranking results that Google isn’t even one of the top 4 results for ‘search engine’: it loses out to AltaVista, Dogpile, and, yes, Bing. (Yes, we’re confused, too.)
Pop quiz. Get ready. You’re only going to have a few milliseconds to answer this question, so look sharp. Here goes: “know the way to San Jose?” Now display the answer on a screen that’s about 14 inches wide and 12 inches tall. Find the answer from among billions and billions of documents. Wait a second – is this for directions or are we talking about the song? Too late. Just find the answer and display it. Now on to the next question. Because you’ll have to answer hundreds of millions each day to do well at this test. And in case you find yourself getting too good at it, don’t worry: at least 20% of those questions you get every day you’ll have never seen before. Sound hard? Welcome to the wild world of search at Google. More specifically, welcome to the world of ranking.
Google ranking is a collection of algorithms used to seek out relevant and useful results for a user’s query. There’s a ton that goes into building a state-of-the-art ranking system like ours. Our algorithms use hundreds of different signals to pick the top results for any given query. Signals are indicators of relevance, and they include items as simple as the words on a webpage or more complex calculations such as the authoritativeness of other sites linking to any given page. Those signals and our algorithms are in constant flux, and are constantly being improved. On average, we make one or two changes to them every day. Lately, I’ve been reading about whether regulators should look into dictating how search engines like Google conduct their ranking. While the debate unfolds about government-regulated search, let me provide some general thinking behind our approach to ranking. Future ranking experts (inside or outside government) might find it helpful. Our philosophy has three main elements:
1. Algorithmically-generated results.
2. No query left behind.
3. Keep it simple.
After nearly two decades, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked why Google chooses to generate its search results algorithmically. Here’s how we see it:
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