Google opens up the secrets of search

29 June 2006


The Times
times online
June 28, 2006

By Rhys Blakely

Is Google open enough about how its search engine works? Have your say here

Google is pledging to demystify the hidden workings of its search engine as it returns to its founding business plan – to make all the world’s information searchable online.

The move to refocus on its core business comes amid criticism that Google has risked losing its way after a breakneck drive to diversify into other areas.

Some services, such as Google Finance, the company’s venture into business information, have widely been dismissed as a flop, attracting only a fraction of the users who visit rival sites from competitors such as Yahoo!.

The long-time darling of the internet sector has also admitted that it has come to be perceived as overly secretive in the way it collects and orders information. To counter that, high-level executives are taking part in a roadshow to shed light on how Google searches the web and ranks content.

“Let’s be clear here, there are no guys in a backroom smoking cigars,” Douglas C Merrill, a Google vice-president who works on search, told Times Online.

The remarks come as businesses discover that ranking highly on Google’s search tool – which accounts for as much as 80 per cent of the market in some countries – is essential to trade on the web. At least one e-commerce site has sued Google this year for refusing to reveal why it was allegedly blacklisted in Google’s search results.

For its part, the search engine today insisted it is concentrating on making searches “automatic and objective” through the use of algorithms – complex mathematical formulas – to order information.

“Search is hard,”Mr Merrill said. “It’s not enough to have an answer, it has to be the right one. You have to respond to what the user meant – not what he said.

“And you can’t do this by hand because the web moves too fast … Up to 20 per cent of the content on it changes every month.”

The most famous tool Google uses to order content is its PageRank system (named after its inventor and Google co-founder, Larry Page). It looks to see how many people have linked to a page from their own sites, to determine its popularity and usefulness.

“This is an incredibly simple and powerful tool … and because you can work this out by doing the math, it is automatic and objective,” Mr Merrill said.

However, despite Google saying that by briefing people on PageRank it is being more transparent, critics will point out that details of the system are already widely known. Indeed, it is just about the only mechanism Google uses in its search engine that has been widely disclosed – as many as 300 others remain under wraps.

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