Comments on our webmaster guidelines?

Google recently beefed up our webmaster quality guidelines with more info, examples, etc. Normally I’d start the conversation and highlight important points. Let’s turn it around this time. Check out the additional info in the webmaster guidelines — what do you see that is unclear? Are there places where you think the wording is poor or confusing?

Back from Foo Camp…

I’m back from Foo Camp 2007 but omigod, I’m so sleepy that I’m seeing double. I stayed up until ~4 a.m. Friday night and 5:30 a.m. last night, and breakfast started at 8 a.m. Some of the late night time was chatting with people and some of it was the Werewolf game. No way around it — getting up for work tomorrow morning is going to suuuuck.

I think Foo Camp is off-the-record, so I’ll make only one observation that anyone could make from public photos. Jay Adelson of Digg looks like he was separated at birth from author Neil Gaiman:

Jay Adelson Neil Gaiman

Adelson’s hair is longer than his picture, so the resemblance is even more noticeable. They also both strike me as bemused at the world. Jay and Neil, you guys should meet each other.

Okay, I’m off to bed. Thanks to Tim and the O’Reilly folks for a fun (un)conference.

Update: The Foo Camp on/off-the-record policy is nuanced. Talking about the general experience as a participant (“I got my laptop laser-etched!” or “They stock the restrooms with Make magazine here!”) shouldn’t be a problem. The preference is that sessions not be recorded/live-blogged (so that people can be spontaneous), and that anything said in confidence should be kept that way as if it were under NDA. People should to be careful to check with other participants to make sure that any commentary preserves the expectations of whether the conversation was public or private. When in doubt, assuming something is off-the-record is the safe policy. If you want to get a flavor for Foo Camp though, Kara Swisher did a short video about it.

The role of humans in Google search

Randy Stross wrote an interesting article for the New York Times about search with a human touch, and I wanted to talk about the role of people in Google search.

On this post, you get not one but *two* disclaimers. It’s all part of my read-one-disclaimer, get-a-free-disclaimer program! :) My disclaimers are:
- This particular post is entirely my own opinion.
- I’m really, really low on sleep. I’m up at Foo Camp 2007 this weekend. This is my first time at Foo Camp, so I stayed up until ~4 a.m. last night talking to people and discovering the crack-like addiction that is the Werewolf game. Okay, let’s begin with a question.

What is the future of search?
I see some obvious answers. For example, Google will continue to work very hard on international search so that we do just as well on a query in Japanese, German, Arabic, or Norwegian as we do in English. But what about longer-term? Will the future of search be

- personalization?
- a completely new user interface?
- semantic understanding of queries or documents?
- social search (which I’ll define as improving search by unlocking the power of people)?
- universal search, which brings in documents from non-html sources (images, videos, patents, etc.)?
- a combination of all of the above, or something entirely different?

Suffice it to say that we spend a lot of time thinking about the future of search at Google, and of course other people think about it too. Let’s take one area, social search, and delve deeper into the subject.

Social Search: the power of people

If you ask an average techie about Google, you’ll hear that we use lots of computers and algorithms. Indeed, the title of the New York Times article is “The Human Touch That May Loosen Google’s Grip.” But (in my opinion), it would be a mistake to think “Google is nothing but cold algorithms and computers; there’s no room for humans at all.” I’ll give you a few examples of the role of people over the years at Google:

- PageRank is fundamentally about the hyperlinks that people on the web create. All those people creating links help Google formulate an opinion of how important a page is.
- Google News looks at a wide variety of news sources; the decisions of human editors at thousands of news sites help Google estimate whether a particular story is significant.
- Google introduced voting buttons on the toolbar back in 2001. They look like happy/frowny faces and they let regular people send thumbs-up or thumbs-down votes to Google.
- Google has allowed users to remove results that they don’t like from Google.
- For more than five years, we’ve allowed users to report spam to Google. We’ve said for years that we reserve the right to take manual action on spam (e.g. if someone types in their name and gets off-topic porn as a result).

And of course, it’s not as if Google’s search engineers drive into the Googleplex in the morning and then spend the whole day sitting around doing nothing while the computers do all the work. :) Instead, Google researchers and engineers spend our days looking for deeper insights that will let us create the next generation of search. I believe Google’s approach to search has always been pragmatic: if an approach will improve the quality of our search, we’re open to it.

“But Matt,” I hear you say, “aren’t you just saying this now because of the recent coverage of human-powered search companies such as Sproose, Mahalo, iRazoo, Bessed, etc.?” Actually, no. I think I’ve been saying similar things for a long time. I did an interview with John Battelle last year, for example. Read the full interview for my (very long) thoughts on the role of people in search, but here’s some of what I said:

I think that Google should be open to almost any signal that improves search quality. Let’s hop up to the 50,000 foot view. When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google. But algorithms aren’t magic; they don’t leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way. ….

So I think too many people get hung up on “Google having algorithms.” They miss the larger picture, which (to me) is to pursue approaches that are scalable and robust, even if that implies a human side. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using contributions from people–you just have to bear in mind the limitations of that data.

I believe that Google has thought about how to unlock the power of people in various ways since PageRank was invented. I’m allowed to make that claim, because more than five years ago I cared enough about leveraging social feedback that I helped write some of the Windows code for the voting buttons in the Google Toolbar. :)

Update, 6/26/2007: While this post is my personal opinion, I’ve noticed other Googlers confirming that Google is open to using human feedback to improve search quality. At the recent European Press Day, a journalist from Guardian Unlimited asked Marissa Mayer about this topic:

[Marissa] said that as the internet has grown, so has the need for search, At first, sites like Yahoo were listing the web by hand in the form of directories. Isn’t there now a place for human intervention again, I asked, now that the web is so full of information? I’m referring to Mahalo.com, the human-powered search engine we covered last week.

I was expecting her to say no, but she didn’t.

“When the web is as large and polluted as it is now, ultimately to need to have more sophisticated ways of searching it,” she said.

“Up to today we have relied on automation, but I believe the future will be a blend of both, combing the scale of automation and human intelligence.”

So that’s one datapoint. The other datapoint comes from Jason Calacanis, who wrote up a session at Foo Camp that Larry Page attended:

[ Larry Page just walked into the group of 12. ]

….

Larry says search is finding content… and that Wikipedia found a better way to organize information. he seems to like the model of using humans and process and machines.

So that’s another indication that Google is open to scalable and robust ways of utilizing the power of people.

Tip of the hat, wag of the finger

I’m shamelessly stealing the title of one of Stephen Colbert’s segments. Some consider Colbert the greatest living American. See, I can joke around. :)

First, a tip of the hat to Robert Scoble. Scoble did a great interview about the paid search side of search marketing with Jeff Figueiredo of Point It. If you spend all your time dabbling in organic/natural search, this is a good reminder that search engine marketing includes both search engine optimization and paid marketing. Scoble’s interview is great, because when Jeff starts to get too technical, Scoble pulls Jeff back into concrete areas: How do I find the keywords to advertise on? How do I know how much to pay? What is the difference between “exact match” and “phrase match” and “broad match”? It’s a good use of your time to watch if you don’t know much about pay-per-click (PPC) marketing.

A tip of the hat to Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn). I’ve been using it as my main desktop OS at home, and it’s amazing how usable it is. Are there still tweaks I miss? Sure. It doesn’t handle larger flatpanel LCD resolutions after installation, and the NetworkManager could be installed by default. But the progress even since the Dapper Drake version a year ago is *phenomenal*. I think Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical are making all the right decisions. The user forums are friendly and informative, and it’s clear that Ubuntu is getting serious traction. Heck, pressing the Alt + PrintScreen button even grabs a screenshot. And I don’t need to fire up WinSCP to upload an image to my website. I can mount a remote FTP/SFTP directory from the “Places” menu, then drag and drop the screenshot directly to the remote server. Very nice.

Next, a tip of the hat to gtkpod. All my music is in MP3 format, and I hate even installing iTunes. I like my music players to look like hard drives that just play random tracks, not locked boxes. The gtkpod progam lets Linux users drag and drop MP3s onto Apple devices easily. I just used it to transfer 500 megs of my MP3s from a Nano to a cute little silver Shuffle.

I have to give a wag of the finger to eBay/Paypal. No, not because of the recent kerfluffle. I was trying to donate some money to the gtkpod team tonight, and when I clicked on SourceForge to send them some money via Paypal, I got this error message:

Paypal down

I had to wait for Paypal to come back up to send some moolah. Every website has downtime now and then; it’s just a bother when you want to send some money that second.

Finally, a tip of the hat to Lawrence (Larry?) Lessig. Lessig has spent ten years trying to encourage sound approaches to copyright and intellectual property. His successes include the founding of Creative Commons. But Lessig has decided to embark on a new project. He plans to spend his next ten years working to examine and bring change to his definition of “corruption”:

I don’t mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean “corruption” in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can’t even get an issue as simple and clear as [copyright] term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.

Transparency in government funding and decision-making is a wonderful goal, in my opinion. I’m looking forward to seeing how Lessig tackles this new decade-long task.

Do you have any tips of the hat or wags of the finger you’d like to point out?

Terry Semel stepping down

Wow. Terry Semel is stepping down as CEO of Yahoo!:

Yahoo!, the world’s second-largest search engine firm, announced Monday that Terry Semel would no longer be the company’s chief executive officer. He is being replaced by Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.

I’ll have to ponder on the implications for a while..

Later: Hmm, Jerry Yang seems to be saying that he plans on being a regular CEO, not an interim CEO. More and more interesting. Jeremy, c’mon, give us your take..

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