Google: Algorithms Aren’t the Only Answer

Google (s goog) has finally pulled back the curtain on a new feature that until now has been in restricted beta: the addition of wiki-style functions in standard search results. Once logged into a Google account, this allows you to click a small up or down arrow to move a specific result, click and delete it from your search entirely, or click on a small comment bubble and leave your comments on that result. Google will remember those settings the next time you search for the same keywords, and has said it may even work for similar or related searches. In many ways, Google is taking the same principles that power a site like Digg and applying them to search.
Adding these kinds of features isn’t a universally popular move. When Wikia Search — Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’s attempt to do the same thing to search, with editing of results and comments (or “annotations”) encouraged — launched earlier this year, there was plenty of criticism aimed not just at the execution and the lack of usable results, but at the very concept of wiki-style search. Many said that opening search results up in such a way would leave the system vulnerable to the inevitable SEO gaming and trick-playing that hampers many other “crowd-sourced” services such as Digg.
This is a little like complaining that the furnace heating your house is too hot, and that you’re afraid it might burn someone. In many ways, wiki-style search is just an extension of the way that Google has always worked: that is, by aggregating the choices of millions of users and then using the PageRank algorithm to produce something approaching the best result. Voting and commenting features simply give Google more pieces of data they can use to arrive at the best result). They will also provide a fairly rich trove of activity-based information that the search engine could use to improve its regular results — that is, the ones that users who aren’t logged in will see — or to tweak its overall search algorithms based on the behaviour of wiki-search users. Why did so many people move that result up? Why did they move another down? Why did some delete that result and not others?
Will these new wiki-style functions be subject to rampant gaming and manipulation? Of course they will — just like everything else that the search giant touches. When you wield as much power online as Google does, gaming and manipulation follow in your wake like pilot fish following a shark. Presumably, the company has taken that into account, and will use their resources to reduce gaming as much as possible. And meanwhile, they will use the results of all that clicking to teach their engine a thing or two about human search behavior.