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
- 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.