Google hones search edge to stay sharp

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" 6,000 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 told AFP. "On the other hand, we don't want people to come to Google and say they don't recognize 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 told AFP 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 favorite "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."

Google began letting users set locations so the search engine could factor proximity into results when appropriate.

Proposed changes to Google's formula are first tested on a separate set of computers that imitate real-world search.

Those deemed worthy are next sent to evaluators around the world who act as online searchers and rate the relevance of results in various languages and regions.

Google then does live testing, with promising algorithm enhancements carefully blended into results served up by the main search engine.

"At any given time, some percentage of our users is actually seeing experiments," Huffman said.

"It is interesting because users don't know what is happening," he continued. "Of course, we don't put things out there that are terrible; we have filters to know when something is bad."

Plenty of improvements are ahead, particularly regarding the ability to understand and derive inferences from the world's many languages, according to Huffman.

He bristles at any suggestion by Google critics that results are tampered with to favor advertisers or achieve other business ends.

"If you think of the scale of what we are talking about, it is almost absurd to say we could rig results," Huffman said, noting that Google handles more than a billion searches daily.

For five and a half years he has run weekly meetings at which changes to Google's search algorithm are decided. Revenue implications of changes have never been brought up at those meetings, according to Huffman.

"Not only do we not make decisions that way, we don't even look at those numbers," Huffman said.

Google believes that delivering the most relevant search results to people as fast as possible is best for the California company's bottom line and, by extension, steers away from useless "spam" websites and "content farms."

"If we care about our users - don't care about money - everything else just falls in line," Singhal said. "A healthy Web and happy users are key to our future."

Singhal pictured a day when search engines understand users so well that they predict what people wanted to know and cue them with messages on smartphones.

"That is the ultimate dream," Singhal said. "We are nowhere close to that yet."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer - 2nd & 3rd Line

    £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The IT Support Engineer is needed to ass...

    Recruitment Genius: Junior / Mid Software Developer

    £22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Service Desk Manager

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity to join a p...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic and Motion Designer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you get a buzz from thinking up new ideas a...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones