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Hundreds of tweaks show Google is still searching

Sydney Morning Herald | April 15, 2011
The head of Google's search evaluation team shakes his head dismissively at the idea of anyone thinking the firm's winning internet-sifting formula is completed.

The head of Google's search evaluation team shakes his head dismissively at the idea of anyone thinking the firm's winning internet-sifting formula is completed.

Far from it.

Software engineers reverently refine Google's search algorithm so consistently that it often ends a day a tad different from when it started.

Scott Huffman's team tested "many more than" 6000 changes to its search engine in 2010, with 500 of them passing the grade to become permanent.

"We have changed engines on a flying plane so many times it has become second nature to us," Google fellow Amit Singhal said, referring to how internet firms modify services while they are live online.

"Alongside changing the engines, the plane has become quieter, the ride got more comfortable, and we even changed your seat while you were sleeping," he continued. "We just do it in small steps that go unnoticed."

Singhal said Google's search is tweaked, on average, twice in a working day.

"On the one hand, we want to be moving quickly and we want to make great changes," Huffman said. "On the other hand, we don't want people to come to Google and say they don't recognise it."

Google in February took the unusual step of spotlighting an improvement to its secret search formula in the United States.

The move was part of an ongoing duel between the search titan and low-quality websites that feature only content copied from elsewhere on the Internet or use techniques to trick their way high in results.

"The feedback has been tremendously positive from users," Singhal said in an interview at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California.

"Overwhelmingly, the change raised ranks of high-quality sites and dropped ranks of low-quality sites."

Huffman's team is responsible for insuring that ideas for improving Google search results do just that.

"People are not just expecting a search engine to return every document that has most of the words typed in a query box," Huffman said. "They want the context understood; there are a lot of nuances hidden within that."

For example, someone searching with the word "Japan" is likely interested in real-time news about the tsunami tragedy there as well as other information about the nation.

One of Huffman's favourite "broken queries" from a couple of years ago was the term "Thai restaurant".

General web searches kept giving top rank to a Thai restaurant in the upstate New York city of Schenectady.

"I used to go complain to the ranking people," Huffman recalled with a laugh. "I'm in Mountain View. It might be a great Thai restaurant, but I'm not going to Schenectady to get Pad Thai. It just isn't going to happen."

 

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