Google Is a Machine; Mahalo, Our Human Search Savior
We’ve already mentioned Matt Cutts’s thoughts on humans’ role in enhancing search engine results today. A New York Times article, “The Human Touch That May Loosen Google’s Grip,” yesterday prompted Matt’s (and several others’, including Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Land) response(s) today.
The NY Times article details Google’s dominance of the search market (Google earns more in a single quarter than Yahoo does in an entire year) and business in general (Google’s 2006 net profit margin is 29% versus Amazon’s 1.8%). They state Ask’s long running argument (possibly soon to be NotWikiaSari’s): even 1% of the search industry is worth over $1B (citing, but not linking to, Don Dodge’s post of the same name).
But once you get past all that, the article is really about what seems to be the latest wave of Google killers: human-powered search engines like Sproose, Cha Cha and (of course, the meat of the article) Mahalo. And Randall Stross (author of the NY Times article) has been drinking the Mahalo Kool-aid. He states:
To those in the trade, outsmarting the algorithm is called â€œsearch engine optimization.â€ For the rest of us, it produces Web pages littered with spam.
Now I understand why SEO has such a bad reputation–one of the only ways we get mentioned in journalism is in a negative light. (Don’t think this happens? Where I grew up, the local TV news stations had actual bans on mentioning a particular city in the area unless the story had a negative slant. The anchors acknowledged and complained about the ban, but followed it.)
Anyway, to hear Stross tell it, Mahalo is the SEO/spam (they’re the same thing, right?) killer that will take down Google. After all, Stross says, they’re funded by the same people that funded Yahoo and Google, so those VCs must know something about search. No comment.
He even asked Matt Cutts about it (so Matt knew this was coming):
Google contends that its search engine relies on humans and machines. Matt Cutts, a software engineer who heads Googleâ€™s Webspam team, said users who place links on their own Web pages pointing to other sites provide the raw information about valued sites that is incorporated into Googleâ€™s PageRank algorithm. How best to utilize that information requires continuing work by human engineers. â€œAlgorithms donâ€™t leap out of Google like Athena from the head of Zeus,â€ Mr. Cutts said.
True, but one could argue that at Google the machine has the final say. Once the query is fed into the â€œengine,â€ the results are presented without manual adjustment.
Oh really? That’s not what the New York Times said three weeks ago: Udi Manber, Amit Singhal, Matt Cutts–are they not humans working on search at Google? The article went in depth about the people involved in Google’s search and how the engineers behind the algorithm work. From that article:
[Google] has hundreds of engineers, including leading experts in search lured from academia, loosely organized and working on projects that interest them. But when it comes to the search engine â€” which has many thousands of interlocking equations â€” it has to double-check the engineersâ€™ independent work with objective, quantitative rigor to ensure that new formulas donâ€™t do more harm than good. . . .
Some complaints involve simple flaws that need to be fixed right away. Recently, a search for â€œFrench Revolutionâ€ returned too many sites about the recent French presidential election campaign â€” in which candidates opined on various policy revolutions â€” rather than the ouster of King Louis XVI. A search-engine tweak gave more weight to pages with phrases like â€œFrench Revolutionâ€ rather than pages that simply had both words. . . .
The reticent Mr. Manber (he declines to give his age), would discuss his search-quality group only in the vaguest of terms. It operates in small teams of engineers.
“The machine has the final say,” Mr. Stross? The “machine” is all these engineers’ baby–and when it’s broken, all these engineers work to fix it. I gotta admit, Google’s model for using humans to return good results certainly scales better than Mahalo’s.
Let’s be honest: the only reason Google’s in the story is because Google gets people’s attention and Mahalo doesn’t.