Google's head of webspam, Matt Cutts, posted a new Webmaster Help video today, discussing accuracy vs. popularity in search results. This video was his response to a user-submitted question:
Does Google feel a responsibility to the public to return results that are truly based on a page's quality (assuming quality is determined by the accuracy of info on a page) as opposed to popularity?
"Popularity is different than accuracy," says Cutts. "And in fact, PageRank is different than popularity. I did a video that talked about porn a while ago that basically said a lot of people visit porn sites, but very few people link to porn sites. So the Iowa Real Estate Board is more likely to have higher PageRank than a lot of porn sites, just because people link to the official governmental sites, even if they sometimes visit the porn sites a little bit more often."
Here's that video, by the way:
"So I do think that reputation is different than popularity, and PageRank encodes that reputation pretty well," Cutts continues. "At the same time, I go to bed at night sleeping relatively well, knowing that I'm trying to change the world. And I think a lot of people at Google feel that way. They're like trying to find the best way to return the best content. So we feel good about that. And at the same time, we do feel the weight, the responsibility of what we're doing, because are we coming up with the best signals? Are we finding the best ways to slice and dice data and measure the quality of pages or the quality of sites? And so people brainstorm a lot. And I think that they do feel the weight, the responsibility of being a leading search engine and trying to find the very best quality content."
"Even somebody who has done a medical search, the difference between stage four brain cancer versus the query grade four brain cancer, it turns out that very specific medical terminology can determine which kinds of results you get. And if you just happen not to know the right word, then you might not get the best results. And so we try to think about how can we help the user out if they don't necessarily know the specific vocabulary?"
Interesting example. We've pointed to the example of "level 4 brain cancer" a handful of times in our Panda and pre-Panda coverage of content farms' effects on search results. The top result for that query, by the way, is better than it once once, though the eHow result (written by a freelance writer claiming specialities in military employment, mental health and gardens - who has also written a fair amount about toilets), which was ranking before, is still number two.
It's worth noting that Google's most recent list of algorithm updates includes some tweaks to surface more authoritative results.
"So I would say that at least in search quality in the knowledge group, we do feel a lot of responsibility," says Cutts. "We do feel like we know a lot of people around the world are counting on Google to return good quality search results. And we do the best we can, or at least we try really hard to think of the best ways we can think of to return high-quality search results."
"That's part of what makes it a fun job," he says. "But it definitely is one where you understand that you are impacting people's lives. And so you do try to make sure that you act appropriately. And you do try to make sure that you can find the best content and the best quality stuff that you can. But it's a really fun job, and it's a really rewarding job for just that same reason."
Cutts then gets into some points that the antitrust lawyers will surely enjoy.
"What makes me feel better is that there are a lot of different search engines that have different philosophies," he says. "And so if Google isn't doing a good job, I do think that Bing, or Blekko, or DuckDuckGo, or other search engines in the space will explore and find other ways to return things. And not just other general search engines, but people who want to do travel might go specifically to other websites. So I think that there's a lot of opportunities on the web."
"I think Google has done well because we return relatively good search results. But we understand that if we don't do a good job at that, our users will complain," he says. "They'll go other places. And so we don't just try to return good search results because it's good for business. It's also because we're Google searchers as well. And we want to return the best search results so that they work for everybody and for us included."
Well, users do complain all the time, and certainly some of them talking about using other services, but the monthly search market reports don't appear to suggest that Google has run too many people off, so they must be doing something right.