Posted April 17, 2008 4:29 pm by with 6 comments

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Google’s VP of Engineering, Dr. Udi Manber, recently sat down with Popular Mechanics and played asked Twenty Questions (which PM thought were ‘rare’).

Manber has been a guru for the University of Arizona, Yahoo and Amazon before taking a position at Google two years ago. His insights into search in general, and Google specifically, are pretty cool. Here are some of his most enlightening answers (emphasis added).

What makes Google so good:

What makes Google philosophically different from all the other search engines? What is Google searching for that others aren’t?
I don’t think it’s about philosophy. It’s about getting people what they need, and about getting the results to be as accurate and fast as possible. We’re innovating, and concentrating just on the relevancy of results. Last year we made over 450 improvements to the algorithm.

There’s a need for SEO (and smarter searchers):

Do you find that the content on the Web is evolving to be more search-engine friendly?
It’s hard to say. It’s definitely still lacking. I wish people would put more effort into thinking about how other people will find them and putting the right keywords onto their pages.

How does search change when the content provider is in a more crowded space? Say, for instance, there are 50 Chinese restaurants all in the same area …
It goes two ways: The content provider should think about how users will look for their content, and the user should think about what words people use to write about their content. Very often people make the mistake of using a search engine as if they are talking to another person. They use all sorts of words that a person will understand, but are not going to be in the content they are searching for. You should think about what you expect to see in the actual page and search for that. Having said that, we’re doing this, too. We will take your query and try to “understand” it and match is as best we can to the content we find on the Web.

(Which is it: the content providers’ fault or the searchers’ fault?)

On human-assisted search from Google:

So let me first tell you about Google. At Google we do not manually change results. For example, if we find for a particular query that result No. 4 should be result No. 1, we do not have the capability to manually change it. We made that decision not to put that capability in the algorithm—we have to go and actually change the algorithm. That is, we have to find what weakness in the algorithm caused that result and find a general solution to that, evaluate whether a general solution really works and if it’s better, and then launch a general solution. That makes the process slower, but it puts a lot more discipline on us and makes it more unbiased.

This should be supplemented, of course, by Matt Cutts’s follow up: “That’s the right answer for a general/Popular Mechanics audience. For the nitpicking search junkies that read here, I’ll just add that we are willing to take manual action on a small number of issues like webspam and removals for legal reasons.”

On the future of social search (and Google being left behind by Facebook, MySpace, et al.):

Search has always been about people. It’s not an abstract thing. It’s not a formula. It’s about getting people what they need. The art of ranking is one of taking lots of signals and putting them together. Signals from your friends are better signals, stronger signals. On the other hand, many searches are long-tail kinds of searches. If you’re looking for what movies to see tonight, your friend can probably give you the best information. If you’re looking for the address of the business, the Web as a whole can give you better information. If you’re looking for something obscure about anything, again the web can give you much better information. It depends on the type of search you do—and how to take all those signals and put them together.

While there are certainly some cool tidbits in there, I don’t really think that the questions “rare”—or at least not to us search marketers (or “nitpicking search junkies” 😉 ). What would you have asked Dr. Manber?