What do you look for when you search? Are you looking for the most updated information, a historical context for something, or some obscure link that you remember having seen five years ago? Google seems to think that it knows, based on what its algorithm has determined from search patterns of hundreds of millions of users, many of whom probably have their web history enabled. In an update announced yesterday, Google’s Amit Singhal has contended that search results are best when they’re fresh, and “Even if you don’t specify it in your search, you probably want search results that are relevant and recent”, and the freshness algorithm will impact as much as 35 percent of searches. Depending on the search query, it will give more recent information more prominence.
I think this is quite clearly evidence of a twitter trends fixation at Google, because many of us are increasingly turning to Twitter for the latest updates and trends. We want to know what people are talking about in our city and the world, and Google News is just too dumb and poorly curated a site for it to be relevant – it’s not often the best written or the site that broke the story that gets prominence on Google News; it’s often the one who did the copy-paste job (and poorly at that) which gets prominence there. The truth is that algorithm based results cannot replace social or human curation, which is why the Facebook’s personalized news feed doesn’t work for me because it takes out discovery while guessing whom I’m more interested in reading about, and twitter based (human) curation works, because I’m choosing to follow those who I trust will share the information I want to read.
Algorithms can very easily be gamed, and you’ll find that this increased focus on freshness from Google will give birth to a cottage industry that creates web pages on the fly to fit trending topics globally, and if Google’s algorithms – once geared for relevance and quality – are now being rejigged to give freshness prominence over relevance like Google News is, my sense is that the quality of search results won’t really serve my needs. Why this matters is because Google is the dominant search engine in the world, and is probably a monopoly in India. It increasingly determines what we find on the burgeoning interwebs, so tweaks to its algorithm impact what we know and find out about the world. If the focus shifts from relevance towards freshness, it isn’t necessarily an improvement, even though Singhal and the Google Search team appear to think so.
Someone also needs to think of how discovery of high quality older content can be improved, even if there are fresh updates.