Has Google lost its touch?

Search gi­ant sees smaller ri­vals catch­ing up, and it has spam to blame

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL S. ROSEN­WALD

Ear­lier this month, my friend Re­becca Sk­loot re­placed her hulk­ing big-boxTV— I can vouch for its girth, hav­ing­movedit once— with a flat-screen no thicker than an iPad. She turned it on and, horror of hor­rors, the pic­ture was lousy.

Dis­pleased, she turned to Google for help. What the search en­gine de­liv­ered was a mess, a col­lec­tion of spammy sites rid­dled with ads. So she turned to Twit­ter, post­ing: “Old TV died, got new­fan­gled LED TV. Shocked how bad/fake movies look! . . . Oth­ers have this prob?”

So­lu­tions to Sk­loot’s tech­no­log­i­cal melo­drama rolled in. Fix this set­ting, turn this off, shazam! A few hours later, she posted: “ Thx 4 fix­ing my TV to­day! It’s ex­am­ple of how Google=in trou­ble. Googled 4 fix, got spam sites. On Twit­ter an­swer=asap.”

Sk­loot’s story seems ever more com­mon these days. Google is fac­ing with­er­ing crit­i­cism from tech blog­gers and search en­gine ex­perts who say the world’s premier gate­way to dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion is in­creas­ingly be­ing gamed by spam­mers. Google, they say, is los­ing.

One tech blog­ger, the well-known iPhone app de­vel­oper Marco Ar­ment, wrote a post about “Google’s de­creas­ingly use­ful, spam-filled web search.” An­other blog of­fered a piece ti­tled “On the in­creas­ing use­less­ness of Google.” Yet an­other head­line spoke of “ Trou­ble in theHouse of Google.”

Data seem to back them up. Google’s suc­cess rate, as mea­sured by the per­cent­age of users vis­it­ing aWeb site af­ter ex­e­cut­ing a search, fell 13 per­cent last year, ac­cord­ing to Ex­pe­rian Hit­wise, which mon­i­tors Web traf­fic. Mi­crosoft’s Bing search en­gine in­creased its search ef­fi­ciency by 9 per­cent over the same pe­riod.

Al­though there could be sev­eral rea­sons for the dis­par­ity, one is most cer­tainly spam in Google’s re­sults, an­a­lysts said.

“It’s clear that Google is los­ing some kind of war with the spam­mers,” said tech guru Tim O’Reilly, who of­ten cheers Google’s technology. “I think Google has in some ways taken their eye­off the ball, andI’dbe wor­ried about it if Iw­erethem.”

Google re­cently re­sponded with it­sown­blog post, ac­knowl­edg­ing some prob­lems and promis­ing to fix them.

“Read­ing through some of these re­cent ar­ti­cles, you might ask whether our search qual­ity has got­ten worse,” the state­ment said. “ The short an­swer is that ac­cord­ing to the eval­u­a­tion met­rics that we’ve re­fined over more than a decade, Google’s search qual­ity is bet­ter than it has ever been in terms of rel­e­vance, fresh­ness and com­pre­hen­sive­ness. . . . How­ever, we have seen a slight uptick of spam in re­cent

months, and while we’ve al­ready made progress, we have new ef­forts un­der­way to con­tinue to im­prove our search qual­ity.”

Google’s predica­ment, an­a­lysts say, comes at a crit­i­cal moment in the life of the In­ter­net. The com­pany gen­er­ates bil­lions of dol­lars in rev­enue from search ads. But so­cial net­works such as Twit­ter and Face­book of­fer peo­ple the abil­ity to gather in­for­ma­tion on­line the way we al­ways have off line— by ask­ing peo­ple we know. Stud­ies show we of­ten give greater trust to in­for­ma­tion gath­ered from sources we know than from those we don’t.

The pool of peo­ple who could an­swer our ques­tions on­line is grow­ing fast. In­ter­net users spend more than 20 per­cent of their time on­line us­ing so­cial net­works. Last year, with more than 500 mil­lion users, Face­book topped Google as the world’s most vis­ited Web site. ( Washington Post Co. Chair­man Don­ald Gra­ham is on Face­book’s board of di­rec­tors.)

While mil­lions of peo­ple still use Google ev­ery day with no prob­lems, I now see re­quests in my Twit­ter and Face­book feeds for things I once Googled: opin­ions on new cars, the best home re­pair per­son, the best place to eat, how to find a de­vel­oper for iPhone apps. When I asked a friend on Face­book why she turned to her friends for new-car rat­ings, she replied: “face­book makes me smile b/c ev­ery­one has opin­ions about ev­ery­thing. i thought that, in this case, the opin­ions would ac­tu­ally be help­ful. i can’t read big google search find­ings b/c i have no pa­tience.”

A good side, a dark side

No doubt, there is a lot to wade through, with more than a mil­lion new spam Web pages cre­ated ev­ery hour, ac­cord­ing to Blekko, a new search en­gine try­ing to take on Google. Op­ti­miz­ing what search en­gines find on all those pages is a big busi­ness— with a good side anda dark side. On­the­good­side, an­a­lysts say, there are le­git­i­mate search en­gine ex­perts such as Jill Whalen, founder of the Bos­ton-area fir­mHigh Rank­ings, who works with big com­pa­nies to make sure im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion ap­pears high up in search re­sults. These search en­gine op­ti­miz­ers are masters of key words, site de­sign and other tech­niques.

“It’s very frus­trat­ing for de­cent SEOs right now,” said Whalen, who re­cently wrote a blog post head­lined, “Dear Google, Stop mak­ing me look like a fool!” “I would think it would be very hard to get into this busi­ness now as a new SEO be­cause there is just so much noise.”

The num­ber of links to a Web page is one mea­sure Google uses to rank Web sites, and that brings us to the dark side of search en­gine op­ti­miza­tion: There are ser­vices that sell links to con­tent that spam­mers are pro­mot­ing. The more links to aWeb page, the bet­ter.

In a par­tic­u­larly de­vi­ous way of goos­ing a page rank­ing, some spam­mers use Ama­zon’s on­line mar­ket­place for Web work, Me­chan­i­calTurk, to hire peo­ple at a nickel a click to fol­low links that would boost their site’s pres­ence on Google. Panos Ipeiro­tis, a New York Uni­ver­sity busi­ness school pro­fes­sor, stud­ied Me­chan­i­cal Turk’s new work of­fer­ings late last year and found that more than 40 per­cent were for spam­ming work. “ The re­sults were dis­turb­ing,” he wrote.

Then­there are the con­tent farms. Com­pa­nies such as De­mand Me­dia, which raised $151 mil­lion in an ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing Wed­nes­day, and AOL have cre­ated busi­nesses that pay writ­ers — or any­one who can rea­son­ably string sen­tences to­gether — to post con­tent that an­swers pop­u­lar search queries. AOL’s Seed di­vi­sion of­fers low-paid writ­ing as­sign­ments based on hot topics. De­mandMe­dia, par­tic­u­larly through its eHowWeb site, spe­cial­izes in how-to in­for­ma­tion. The com­pany has told in­vestors it re­lies heav­ily on rev­enue gen­er­ated through Google’s ad­ver­tis­ing pro­gram.

Con­tent farms are masters at sur­fac­ing their con­tent high in Google’s search re­sults. The con­tent, crit­ics say, is of­ten less than mas­ter­ful. A search on Google for “ how do I cal­i­brate flat screen tv” turns up two eHow sites in the first three links. One is writ­ten by some­one named Jenna John­son, whose other ar­ti­cles in­clude “How to Or­ga­nize a Small Bed­room” and “How to Use Leftover Meat­loaf.” (Make a meat­loaf sandwich, she sug­gests.)

De­mand Me­dia de­clined to com­ment, cit­ing the quiet pe­riod af­ter its IPO, but com­pany ex­ec­u­tives have in the past re­jected the “con­tent farm” la­bel. AOL Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent David Ma­son also dis­puted the “con­tent farm” term, say­ing the com­pany pushes its au­thors to write deep, en­gag­ing con­tent. Seed re­cently high­lighted an item on its blog about clean­ing eye­glasses with tooth­paste.

My friend with the lousy TV pic­ture found noth­ing in the eHow posts— or the other links that Google sur­faced — that helped her.

“I was about to takemy newTV back to the store be­cause I thought it was just a kind of TV that wouldn’t work the waywe wanted it to,” she said. Then Twit­ter, not Google, saved the day. Asked how her pic­ture is now, Sk­loot said, “Amaz­ing.”

A step be­hind

Google, for its part, says that it has long been aware of link buy­ing and other spam­ming tricks and that its al­go­rithms take all of that into ac­count. But many of Google’s crit­ics won­der how far ahead of the spam­mers the com­pany re­ally is.

“I have a hard time be­liev­ing they are los­ing this badly,” O’Reilly said. “I look at more and more cat­e­gories of searches that are clearly spam” — med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, prod­uct re­views, technology help, res­tau­rant tips.

As for con­tent farms, Google en­gi­neers said the com­pany must come up with bet­ter ways to keep that con­tent from show­ing up so high in search re­sults.

“We are hear­ing the com­plaints about this type of shal­low con­tent, and we are go­ing to ad­dress it,” saidAmitSing­hal, the most se­nior en­gi­neer on Google’s pager­ank­ing team. “We have to make sure our users are get­ting the best in­for­ma­tion, and if they are not, we have failed.”

The com­pany, in its blog post, said it re­cently launched a new in­ter­nal tech­no­log­i­cal tool that makes it harder for “spammy” con­tent to rise in re­sults. Other tools and strate­gies are forth­com­ing, ex­ec­u­tives said.

But many In­ter­net an­a­lysts won­der whether the new spam-fight­ing ef­fort, al­though needed, is be­side the point.

“We have kind of stretched the use­ful­ness of search en­gine al­go­rithms for sur­fac­ing the kind of spe­cific con­tent we are look­ing for,” said Wil­liam Tancer, gen­eral man­ager of global re­search for Ex­pe­rian Hit­wise.

The fu­ture, many be­lieve, is so­cial search. Mi­crosoft, which is a ma­jor in­vestor in Face­book, can scour a searcher’s own Face­book ac­count on ev­ery query. Face­book, not­ing an in­crease in users who ask for in­for­ma­tion in their sta­tus up­dates, is test­ing a new func­tion called Face­book Ques­tions.

“If we no­tice a lot of peo­ple us­ing a fea­ture in a par­tic­u­lar­way, that’swhenwe con­sider spe­cial­iz­ing a prod­uct for that need,” said Brett Tay­lor, Face­book’s chief technology of­fi­cer.

“Any­one can an­swer your ques­tion, which means you can tap into the col­lec­tive knowl­edge of the mil­lions of peo­ple on Face­book,” the com­pany says on aWeb page ex­plain­ing the new tool. An­swers that users rate as high qual­ity can then be high­lighted be­yond a user’s own so­cial net­work, push­ing an­swers from one net­work of peo­ple to many, many oth­ers.

Ahot start-up calledQuo­rais fol­low­ing a sim­i­lar ques­tion-and-an­swer model. Mean­while, Google is also work­ing on so­cial search, with co-founder Sergey Brin re­port­edly head­ing up the ef­fort. He re­cently said the com­pany has scratched just one per­cent of what so­cial search could be. Google al­ready searches Twit­ter along­side clas­sic Web page searches. Users signed in­on­aGoogle ac­count will also see re­sults such as im­ages or sta­tus up­dates from their con­tacts. Some in­for­ma­tion from Face­book is in­cluded, but noth­ing from a user’s ac­count.

Google spent $50 mil­lion last year to buy a com­pany called Aard­vark that lets users send ques­tions to peo­ple in their so­cial net­works. If those friends can’t an­swer the ques­tion, it is sent on to friends of friends. An­swers are de­liv­ered, of­ten im­me­di­ately, via in­stant mes­sage or e-mail. I gave it a try last week.

Ihave a nasty case of sci­at­ica and might need to start walk­ing at my desk while I work. I asked Aard­vark: “What is the best way to set up a tread­mill desk? I want to put a tread­mill un­der my desk some­times.” One smart aleck quickly an­swered, “Does your desk need some ex­er­cise?” But a few min­utes later, I got an in­stant mes­sage from some­one named Adam K. in Cran­berry, Pa., of­fer­ing a col­lec­tion ofWeb links.

“Was Adam’s an­swer help­ful?” Aard­vark asked.

I clicked yes.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY JON CON­TINO

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