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Is Search Going in the Right Direction?
Monday, March 28, 2011
I have been thinking a lot about a comment I read recently suggesting that the Google Panda algorithm update was created as a result of Google's Caffeine update from late 2009 and early 2010. For those of you who may not be familiar with Google Caffeine, it was an infrastructure update from Google that according to Google "... provides 50 percent fresher results for web searches than our last index, and it's the largest collection of web content we've offered. Whether it's a news story, a blog or a forum post, you can now find links to relevant content much sooner after it is published than was possible ever before." The fact is perhaps Caffeine was a little too efficient.

Could it be true that Google could not keep up with all of this new content that they were indexing? With all of the syndication and scraping of content out there, Google's index grew immensely. So much so that in case you've been using a different search engine, Google's search results began to suffer. If you think about it, the timing seems right. Google soft launched Caffeine in August 2009, the full roll-out was complete in June 2010.  This "soft launch" allowed Google to obtain feedback and test out their new index.  Many suggest that it was launched in part to allow Google to provide quicker more real-time search results.  It makes senses as in early 2010 saw Google release their real-time search which consisted of a lot of tweets and Facebook updates.  Fast forward a few months and we began seeing some questionable search results in Google.  This, no doubt a direct result of Google's now even more massive index of pages.  With all of this additional "content" out there, how could any search engine return a list of the ten "best" results?  How could Google continue to effectively list the most relevant results for a given search query?  How could Google determine the originator of a page of content?  How could Google deal with over-optimized web pages?   As the premier search engine out there, you have to think that Google realized with great power comes great responsibility and they have a major responsibility to ensure that the best information is ranking the highest and not just the most optimized.  Perhaps a major component of their ranking algorithm, link popularity, needed to be revisited.  Regardless, Google Caffeine changed the playing surface which has had a dramatic impact on Google results as we knew them.

Enter the "Google MayDay" update targeted at sites that had successfully been optimizing for long-tail more obscure phrases.  For online marketers it had become fairly easy to "game Google" with long-tail optimization.  Google realized this and launched an algorithm to deal with this.  It is no secret that sites that were optimizing for long-tail were performing very well in Google's search results.  This provided some nice qualified traffic for many sites, and you did not have to be a major brand to place well in the results.  Which may have been one of the factors as to why Google started giving additional attention to large brands with subsequent updates.  In fact, Google continues to roll out multiple placements for a single brand domain where we now see four, five or even more results from the same domain for a given "branded" search query. Another fluctuation in Google's results.

In recent months, Google results have become cluttered with lower quality sites.  Link and content spam have started to take over.  Google's web spam team have been said to have been working on the "Panda" update since January of last year.  Part of the reason for this update is due to Google Caffeine.  Along with a more effective and larger index of pages comes more web spam.  I have seen it with my own searches (both professionally and personally).  There are sites that sneak through the index and quite honestly have no business ranking as high as they do.  Of course there is cause and effect.  For every spam page that places in top spot means that the true or at least more relevant result is displaced.  I don't know about you, but when I perform a search for "apple iPad 2"  I expect to see http://www.apple.com/ipad/ in the top spot. Depending on your search query you may or may not be getting the results that you were expecting.

Search is definitely changing.  The results are continuing to change and the days of "ranking in top spot" for your main keywords are becoming a thing of the past if you are not able to adapt to the ever changing algorithms.  Google does not owe any site the right to rank #1 for <insert keyword here>.  Just because you have ranked for <insert key phrase here> for two years, five years, ten years does not mean that you will tomorrow.  Google makes hundreds of algorithm changes per year.  They are now factoring in social signals and are looking to provide the most timely and relevant search results.  This is not an easy task and dare I say that Google has been struggling with this as of late.  There has been some interesting thoughts on where Search is heading, and I have to agree with Stefan Weitz, Director of Bing Search when he says:
“This idea of a universal notion of relevancy worked really well in the earlier days of the web. We had a smaller web, we had a more static web and we had a web that really was a web in the true sense of that term.

That was the way PageRank was constructed and that algorithm was quite brilliant. I still think that it’s quite brilliant. But it does seem a bit chaotic that we’re using that same notion. If I’m looking for the best hospital to treat cancer, just think about how ridiculous that model actually is. We’re now relying on popularity and in links to determine that? That doesn’t make any sense.”

I have said it many times before, the link popularity of the search algorithms needs to be adjusted.  People are frequenting social arenas because there is trust in a community.  We value the opinions of friend and family.  Social spam is much more difficult to game than that of content or web spam.  Searchers are smarter.  They are demanding more relevancy in their quest for information.  Searchers may not even use a search engine.  Perhaps they will visit a forum, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to find their information (yes I know YouTube is a search engine).  We desire richer experiences and Search may or may not always provide that experience.  Results from Google's Panda update have not yet delivered this richer experience that I am looking for.  The idea behind the update was a good one and that is to clean up web spam.  I applaud Google to provide me with the option of blocking sites from my results that do not deliver a richer experience.  I want the most relevant content for my query, so I have been blocking sites at will.  The fact is that I should not have to do this.  An effective search engine should do this for me.  It is no wonder why people are using longer search queries to find the information that they are looking for.  The search results are not returning what we need.  Anyone else wonder if Google or the other search engines monitor the bounce rates of their SERPs? 

There is more to search than relevancy however.  As one commenter noted, "What if I want my search to bring up items not based upon my own narrow assumptions; results that may surprise, delight or even educate me about other perspectives?"  Search engines have a difficult job in returning results accordingly.  You cannot please all of  the people all of the times.  Search as we have known it has undergone a huge transformation in the past twelve to fifteen months.  Look for more changes to come.

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posted by Jody @ Monday, March 28, 2011  
2 Comments:
  • At 12:37 PM, Blogger Rob said…

    There are 2 problems as I see it:

    1) Keeping on top of social signals will be a monumental task. By the time the crawl through and analyze them, they'll have changed.

    2) I don't think there can be a single source for all the information. In the old days, as you know, we used to use 2 or 3 search engines to find the information we wanted. Now we use Google, Bing, Twitter and/or Facebook to name a few. While it's admirable to want to be the single source I don't think it's practical.

    For example, my 15 year old son recently asked me for something. I told him to search for it. In the end he didn't get what he wanted from a search engine but rather a friend on facebook. It was easier for him to ask a friend cause they usually understand better what it is you are looking for than a machine interpreting words in a string as best it can.

     
  • At 4:13 AM, Anonymous Maciej @ Brandignity said…

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Google most likely could not keep up with the influx of new content. Older content from high powered content "farms" simply trumped the search results. I feel bad that some lost close to 100% traffic but you have to make room for the smaller guys.

     
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