With Relevancy Totally Irrelevant to Its Success: What is Google?

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I am writing this article in response to the recently posted“Google Quality Rater Guidelines 2012” document, seemingly leaked, speculatively injected into the market. Before I dissect the specimen, let me start with a general Google overview first. 

Learning about Google Ads

For all practical, technical, scientific, and artistic purposes, Google is not a search engine, at least not for me. Google Search is an advertising engine – period. It is so simply because all the top results it brings are information served to you from rich people, people who have enough SEO money to be on top, or at least enough money to advertise at the top of search terms. In this search mechanism, neither you nor I have any choice for seeing anything other than what other people have decided for us to see based on their financial power. This is not a definition of a search engine in my book, nor should it be in anyone’s.

For the sake of argument, let’s you and I have a thought experiment. Imagine that you have a two columned menu in your newly opened restaurant. Can you see it? On the left, you put your free (or very cheap) appetizers. On the right, you have the main courses, the real money makers. Now, how much attention do you want people to pay to the left column versus the right column? Especially, if you have to give the appetizers (or chicken wings or peanuts) free to draw people in, would you want them to just have the appetizers and then leave?

No. This is the very same delicate issue Google has been secretly battling. Many of Google’s ingenious people earn their lucrative salaries just to maintain this suggested balance only, offering up the freebies to get you to buy the main course – advertiser wares. The rest of Google’s ventures outside this model, are like  Christmas ornaments for Wall Street.

To continue, just as the appetizers must be good enough to draw the people in to your restaurant, Google search results on the left column should be good too. But, if you (Google) make the appetizers too delicious, then your whole “business” is in trouble. And, if you make them too yucky (irrelevant), again business will suffer. In addition, you cannot list the same dish under both columns, for fairly obvious reasons. This is the balance I am referring to. Hence, improving Google search relevancy senselessly works against this balance. Google (your restaurant) just has to have the right dose of relevancy – nothing more, and nothing less.

To shed more light on this issue, I will make an example using a medical term, because medical advertising is a very expensive main course.

Google’s Circus Balancing Act

Google Search Term: Headache. The results for this query are shown below (search performed from New York in December 2, 2012. Google results may change in time and by the origin of IP)

Google search menu

Now Mr. Google, are you saying that the Advil.com Website has no good, relevant content that deserves to be in this search results, left column (in appetizers)? Of course it has. But, Advil is already paying an arm-and-a-leg for this term, so why make it a free appetizer? Another obvious oddity here is the situation for Aspirin and its manufacturer Bayer. On the entire first page of results, no mention of these words whatsoever shows for the same term “headache.”  How is it possible that one of the most common, popular, and well-known medicine in the entire world for headache is nowhere to be seen? Is it not relevant? Where is bayer.com ? Where is aspirin.com?

One explanation could be that Bayer does not need Google to sell its aspirin since it is such a house-hold name. Thus, Bayer, probably,  neither invests on SEO nor advertises its product. If you type “Aspirin” then you see Bayer and Aspirin in the appetizer menu, supporting the argument above: they are not getting into a bidding war for the term “headache.” Again, we are explaining search performance in terms of economics, hence the starting line “Relevancy not relevant to its success: What is Google?”

Almost all results from Google Search are distributed with this balancing act for the fat tail (short and popular queries).  You can test this yourself. If you have enough time to do a good sampling, you will see that, with some exceptions, the appetizer menu and main course menu on Google are carefully balanced. This complex picture is somewhat simplified in the diagram below.

Google Search balancing act

As a supplement to this diagram, we need to show how and where this balancing act occurs. So, for the query “headache”, relevancy (in the literal sense) becomes unimportant because there will be millions of pages relevant to this term. This is where Google’s next criteria kicks in, which is quality. Google has several definitions of quality (such as utility, usefulness, etc.) and this is mainly determined by a mixture of rudimentary patterns (such as how long your description meta tag is) and statistical methods (such as the historical data of user clicks on links following search.) However, what is disguised here is that there is also another criteria, namely economics, which Google uses to assesses the dollar value of each page in terms of its effect on advertising revenue.

For an example here, one simple balancing act is to cut off all results from Advil.com since they bid on the term heavily for “headache” and thus they pop up on the advertising column anyhow. But there are other means too, methods only known to a few people inside Google, things that affect this balance. Based on these considerations, a formula for Google’s ranking algorithm would be an unknown function of relevancy, quality, and economics:

Page Rank = f (Relevancy, Quality, Economics)

Fat tail versus the long tail

In the graph above, note the blue line which marks the “fringes” of the fat tail, a transition to the long tail. To illustrate here, I picked a query “what causes headache after biking” on purpose, which clearly marks the boundary where Google loses its control over revenue. In response to this query, you will see several results from biking sites on this page, and no advertising will appear. In these search situations usefulness, utility, and economics criteria are all in limbo. Now, only the shear “relevance” mechanism (variable) is left in action, and this aspect of Google is actually quite poor. The reader should also note that the long tail is a big business, as proven by iTunes and Amazon. Consequently, Google wants desperately to claim the long tail territory of search.

Human Labor & Other Factors

Now let’s interpret Google’s leaked document, which serves the purpose of training people for rating URLs, the so-called “Quality Rater Guidelines 2012.” Here are my observations and speculations on this document:

  • Google has two different missions using human labor in rating Web pages for given queries. (1) Identify Web sources that practice ill-intention (cloaking, spamming, etc.) with clear boundaries. Google must have a huge black-list, and this exercise repeated quite often will update their black list. (2) Rate the quality of the Web pages (URLs) for a given query. This is the interesting part where the “balancing act” matters. I will iterate this part only going onward. But, I imagine that a big chunk of this effort is aimed towards the first mission.
  • With its second mission, Google is trying the push the blue line (diagram above) to the right, in order to claim more territory in the long tail, doing so by using human labor. I’ll bet all queries supplied to the trainers will be on this boundary of long/fat tail. Then, Google will compare ratings by human labor to its algorithm and use the difference to adjust the algorithm accordingly for the best economic solution.
  • Now here’s a key argument. Anyone even vaguely interested in mathematics should know that long tail is so huge, that any such human powered, inch-by-inch progress toward rating is absolutely futile. Therefore, I will stipulate that the second mission is a hoax, keeping people on payroll, and showing Wall Street (and others) that some real effort is put into progress for relevance.
  • Based on this assessment, I would further claim that the Quality Rater document is leaked on purpose. It does not contain any secrets, but it shows 161 pages of supposed hard work as to how improving search relevancy is a commitment.
  • SEO people will find nothing useful in this document, because they do not know one of the most important criteria, that is the economics rating, and the corresponding strategy behind it. For example here, if your page on headache is highly academic, you may have a better chance to rank high in the appetizer menu than if your page is commercial, so as not to step on advertiser toes. Google has “no free lunch” mentality. But, if your business is a good earner for Google, meaning you advertise heavily on Google, then your Webpages will carry a different importance. Once this information leaks out, if this is the case, obviously a huge uproar would be heard from the likes of Microsoft, all Google competitors, and agencies determined to monitor such machinations.
  • For me, I also found this document entertaining from the aspect of information overload on trainers. I laughed to tears reading “act as a regular Joe Blow.” After presenting the quality raters information a volume only comparable to a users’ manual on how to launch a nuclear missile, how can anyone expect human raters to represent ordinary people given so many directives? This self-conflicting strategy is a sign of sloppiness in their rating mentality at best, and subterfuge in the worst case.

Google is an advertising engine with an ingenious principle: keep users in the zone of fat tail queries by the method of under-articulation of language (pigeon language) such as auto-query-fill, so that users do not wander around the long-tail, where money making is difficult. I bet you always thought auto-fill was an added user experience feature! As for assessing “what Google is”, any other consideration of Google outside being an ad engine is superfluous.

Finally, in science we deal in the concrete, as opposed to the intrinsic nature of things, even at this Google Search is not even “intrinsically” a true search engine, let along a good one. At the core a search engine is a computer program designed to find answer to queries from within a collection of information. Once the results deviate from actual fact (pure relevance), and toward manipulated result (ad and economic science), I know you see my point.

 Photo credits: Cartoon – courtesy © andrewgenn – Fotolia.com

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Search Engine Journal, its staff, or its partners.

Riza Berkan
A nuclear physicist by training, Dr. Berkan worked on artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, and semantics over the past two decades with emphasis on search and... Read Full Bio
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  • Wow, I have read many SEO article before, all of them practically say the same thing; build links, lots of content, bla, bla, bla.

    I wish that you would have mentioned what is a small business owner to do, who does not have a big budget.

    • I will have another article coming up soon that may give some ideas.

  • Butler

    A well reasoned, if slightly cynical view point.

    I do wonder how many millions of dollars revenue from increased AdWords activity Google receives after slamming – algorithmically or otherwise – highly competitive/commercial organic SERPs.

    It must be nice to be able to pull such big levers and watch the numbers.

  • Although I enjoyed the article, I must also admit that I find myself disagreeing with some ideas lurking behind it, more and more as I was reading it.

    I undertand the concerns expressed about the whole google-going-commercial issue, especially if combined with the news about Google discontinueing free apps for business. However, what I feel the article is missing entirely is a user’s point of view. Sure, google shows ads and makes a ton of money from them. And sure, as a marketer I am delighted to be able to make money from it, for myself and my clients.

    However, I can’t help but thinking as an actual user or searcher when issues like these come up. With all the changes you describe, at least personally, I feel I get even better (relevant and quality) results, without a feeling that I have been dupes, manipulated in any way.
    As for aspirin.com which you mentioned, I admit I was intrigued that it didn’t show in the results. I tried it myself, aspirin nowhere to be found. Then I visited their site and is sort of obvious why. Their SEO sucks… big time. The keyword ‘headache’ only appears a hand full of times in their whole website. And most of the times is as alt text for images, try finding that keyword as text is looking for needle in a haystack.
    Shocking? Maybe, but this is reminder for something very very interesting and true. Even companies with big budgets with the capacity to spend big buck for SEO and PPC sometimes fail, big time.

    Finally, for the question of what predicate we should chose to put in front ‘engine’ to describe what Google is, what I consider more important is to ask ourselves if the searcher is actually get the most relevant results possible for his query. Is google perfect? No, it is not. But, google is an ever-evolving engine, indexing and displaying information from an ever-ever evolving pool of data, tha is the internet, for an ever evolving audience which is us, the users. So attaching it a tag of ‘ad’, ‘search’ or whatnot, I find to be interesting in a theoretical, ethical level, but ultimately useless.

    • Appreciate your comments and respect your point o f view. (1) User’s point of view, I would not trust a system that drops Advil.com from the search results because they are advertising, and/or not bringing Bayer.com just because they do not follow SEO practices. That’s the whole point. For example, if I had a serious medical condition and looking for information, I would rather find information based on relevance as its merit, not based on economics or fitting rudimentary patterns. It is a stretch of imagination that the advertising strategy in Google would produce better or more useful results for the end user. (2) calling Google and Advertising Engine instead of Search Engine is important from technical aspect. For example, Google Appliance in enterprise search is a “search engine” because there is no advertising mechanism in it, and when it is only a search engine, Google does not dominate. Their track record in enterprise search market is below mediocre. For all those scientists working in the information retrieval field, this distinction is well deserved. And for start-ups, it warns them to pay attention to the economics aspect of search.

  • Grogro

    The cynicism is warranted with a post-Panda Google. I guess we’re all scroogled.

  • Interesting point of view 🙂
    I will say that Google is no more a search engine – its a big part of internet tools.
    Lets start from a Gmail – many many people are using Gmail, and even they integrate they own company emails to the system – why? – because it works.
    Howe many of them every day see a ads on they own email accounts 🙂
    Search – even we have a word to “Google it” even if u are using Ging, or any other search engine – you say “just google it”
    If u need to find something – what You do – You go to Google…

    From SEO part – first when u make optimization – You think how Google will crawl it…

    But can’t agree that only big companys can make a SEO…. one of my friends have read’et some articles, and done SEO for they photography page by her self… 🙂
    With out any knowlages – so its just depends how strong u want to be on the top 🙂

  • In order to show the growth that stockholders are expecting, paid search ads have been given more and more prominence over time (Relevant plug: http://www.wordstream.com/articles/google-ads), and I think will continue to be given so as more businesses shift their advertising dollars from traditional advertising to web . I love the comparison of appetizers and main course (though sometimes inaccurate since I’ve run a restaurant where the opposite was true in terms of what brought in more profit per item). As a small business manager in the past, I used to only think about SEO vs PPC from how they would benefit me – but once you’re a SEM that looks at both SEO and PPC and thinks about where Google’s next steps are holistically, the picture changes.

    • It is an interesting page at wordstream.com. Thanks for pointing out. There is an additional angle which I have not touched: ACCIDENTAL CLICKS or CARELESS CLICKS on ads. That is a BIIIIG business, unfortunately, and would not even be considered click fraud. It is a shameful manipulation of background colors. I think they spent countless hours to analyze and figure out at what point people do not care or notice anymore. In the restaurant analogy, appetizers were free, which may be an unrealistic example.

  • Very interesting post and conversation. Without doubt, Google is pushing its advertising platform while making it difficult for black hat SEOs to manipulate organic rankings. This seems like a sensible business strategy to me. However, I do think large and small firms can benefit from legitimate SEO activities. There’s nothing wrong with building a site that is easy for Google to index and understand. There’s also nothing wrong with doing keyword research and using keywords in site content: all you’re doing here is using the language of people who are looking for your content. Thought of in that way, to ignore SEO is to ignore your customers — not a sensible business strategy. Long term, Google will not be able to hold its near monopoly on organic search. Bing’s algorithm is probably superior already, and there will be plenty of room for niche competitors as searches continue to become more sophisticated and discriminating.

  • It could be argued that in a society where we depend on an advertising engine to search for knowledge and information we ‘re basically all screwed, as is education and the business of education
    But then again the vast majority is numb or asleep most of the time anyway, so it probably doesn’t make any difference.

    BTW: That looks like a typo at the last paragraph, “let along a good one”.

    • Yes, it was a typo, thanks for pointing out. Education is far down the list of utilities of a search engines like Google, Bing, etc. There is actually no search engine for education unless you consider Wikipedia as an option. Education is a open market, and someone sometime will capitalize on that opportunity.

  • Today, I got to learn new things about SEO and Google Page Rank, these are the some type of advanced things which i really needed to have idea of!

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this piece Dr. Berkan. I had never taken the time to evaluate Google (or any of the other search engines for that matter) to this depth. With that being said, I found myself pausing throughout your piece and saying to myself, “Well I’ll be damned, he’s right.”

    Google (Bing, Safari, etc.) are nothing but Advertising Engines that happen to help. However, their “help” is an opinionated-help. Building off of what you said, they are manipulating information to display “good enough” help to get you to where you’re going … which just so happens to be somewhere they want you to go (financially speaking).

    I really found myself shocked at this next part I’m going to quote both on the accuracy of the statement, and the Wow factor of “Damn, I totally thought that). “Google is an advertising engine with an ingenious principle: keep users in the zone of fat tail queries by the method of under-articulation of language (pigeon language) such as auto-query-fill, so that users do not wander around the long-tail, where money making is difficult. I bet you always thought auto-fill was an added user experience feature!”

    ^that basically sums it up for me. Here is a term I’ll give to “What is Google?” based on how we (users) utilize it: acceptable deception.

    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

  • Great post. It’s really difficult to read something NEW about SEO today. Your article is unique and very useful. Good work!

  • The thing is, a search engine can’t help being dumb.

    If you walk into a pharmacy and say “headache” the pharmacist can ask a whole bunch of follow up questions to find out exactly what you’re after.

    Google can’t.

    So if you just search for “headache” you’re going to get a mixed bag of results.

    The article seems to assume that anyone Google headache is looking for pain relief, hence the mention of aspirin, but that’s an assumption a search engine just isn’t capable of making .

    It’s not about tricking people into clicking ads – it’s about a search engine inability to derive context from one word.

    Long tail keywords return more relevant results because Google has more information with which to work.

    I’d also suggest there is plenty Google can do to clear up long-tail results through manual assessment. Sure, it can’t rank every single URL for relevance against every single term, but it can identify sites which are gaming the system and penalize them – the result? A better search experience for everyone.

    • I agree with your point that the query “headache” is not articulated enough by the user. But Google encourages shortness, and that is obvious from the environment it provides. By the time I finish typing headache, the results are already pouring in, and the SEARCH BUTTON is not even used. Why do you think Google is not waiting for you to click on the search button? Because short queries are lucrative advertising vehicles.

  • Extraordinary article, I like at most how you pointed out the cynical, unethical and full of hypocrisy way used by Google to manipulate the Internet and the suckers who still think Google is a “search engine” and not an evil corporation lead by pure mercantilism…

    • Dear Victor, thank you for your comment. I would not go that far as to call Google an evil company. I think they are exercising deceptive tactics not much different than Vitamin producers or insurance companies. Capitalism is a tainted system where everyone accepts to be deceived in a democratic manner. Deception is unavoidable, and there is no honest or fair form of it. Google is a victim of its success.

  • It is only fair to generate some revenue from a service you provide to the user. As long as Google remain as a search engine, providing organic search result on the left of SERP and revenue ads on the right, it is a search engine. The weakness of the SEO of a company can’t be blamed as Google being advertising engine. The search term ” headache” is not a search term If you search for “headache medicine” you probably get a different result. When you search on Google or Yahoo Or bing, I suggest to use two word phrase to get a relevant result.

    • If “headache” is not a search term for “medicine” then why are there ads, like ADVIL ? It is obvious that ADVIL made its bid to be on top for the query “headache” anticipating the query was “medicine” related. I would give more credit to ADVIL advertisers for their anticipation than your interpretation. Sorry for my choice 🙂 but they are spending big big bucks for this gamble, whereas your interpretation costs nothing to you. Nevertheless, I appreciate your comment, regardless of what I think, all view points are useful.

      • If you have a good SEO and optimized your web page for key words with “association” and the page is optimized with associated key words, your web page shows up vs a page not optimized with a key word with out assoiation. And Google doesn’t get paid on the organic search result section.

      • Let’s hope and pray that Google keeps the organic search result section and pay per click search results section separate as it originally started to be a search engine. And if they make MONEY on the way for research and development it is ok too.

  • Babur Ozden

    I have a down-to-earth layman question.

    10 minutes ago I typed Google and Bing “Why seniors dislike flavored water in Texas” and hit enter.

    What followed was a comedy (or melodrama).

    I was provided more than a million search results by each engine, but after scrolling 5 pages of search results I found not one even remotely relevant or relavant.

    It is hard to believe that when the size of data on the web is measured by numbers that end with 16 zeroes and doubling every 2 years, it still cannot be searched with a human like dialogue.

    When will someone make a search engine that it can handle real human questions like this and end the era of Google or Bing?


  • I think you just wrote is bang on the money. To be honest a lot of SEO’s online are part of a hive mind and do not understand or see Google as an economic entity. The ‘do no evil quote’ is played out but it is still peddled about in many quarters. The recent updates in the past year had very little to do with cleaning up spam. It had to do with the bottom line, simple.

    So what happen, Google will simply carry on stifling off the competition by buying up start-ups and patents . They will set-up incubators all over the world so they can buyout any new idea and shut them down or assimilate them.

    Meanwhile, like you put it, they will continue with the balancing act to keep search from devouring itself.