SEO Vet Bill Slawski On Google's Knowledge And Answers

Chris CrumSearch

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In case you haven't noticed, Google has changed a lot over the years, and much of the search engine's focus is on showing users answers and information about what they're looking for directly on search results pages through things like direct answers and Knowledge Graph.

Is the Google experience improving as a result? Share your thoughts in the comments.

On top of that, Google thinks it can effectively dig into websites and distinguish what is fact from what is not, and use that as a ranking signal. This was explained in a recently released research paper about what Google calls "Knowledge-Based Trust," though the company maintains it is not using it at this time.

Google owns a ton of patents, and there are clues sprinkled throughout that trove about its methods for implementing this stuff. With that in mind, we reached out to THE person who spends more time analyzing Google patents than anybody else on the web, to get some perspective on how Google is doing with these initiatives.

If you follow the SEO industry, Bill Slawski needs no introduction, but just in case, he is the president and founder of SEO by the Sea as well as the Director of Search at Go Fish Digital. His blog has been going strong for the past decade, and is without a doubt the best place to read analysis of Google's search-related patents.

Let's get to the Q&A.

In your opinion, how is Google doing with "knowledge" right now? Are they getting it right? Are there too many errors? How do you feel, overall, about how Google has progressed here since first implementing Knowledge Graph?

Bill Slawski: Google is trying a multitude of approaches in responding to Knowledge Graph answers. One of the biggest areas of change happening at Google and at Bing right now is the evolution of search results. With Google, we are seeing increasing numbers of Direct answers, Structured snippets, and rich snippets in response to queries. The Answer Box has been around at Google for a few years, and when it first started out, it tended to be filled with vertical search results that it thought might be appropriate in response to a query - responses filled with News results, Local results, Book results. and others that were different from the 10 blue links that Google had been showing searchers. In Google's Financial 10 K statement for 2014 they stated that they would be trying to provide more direct answers for natural language queries:

It's been that way from the beginning; providing ways to access knowledge and information has been core to Google and our products have come a long way in the last decade. We used to show just ten blue links in our results. You had to click through to different websites to get your answers, which took time. Now we are increasingly able to provide direct answers -- even if you're speaking your question using Voice Search -- which makes it quicker, easier and more natural to find what you're looking for.

Google did have a program that was run by Andrew Houge, now the director of Engineering at FourSquare, which he referred to in an online copy of his Resume, the "Annotation Framework" which resulted in a number of knowledge Web based patents being developed at Google, including Google Maps, which seems like a proof of concept for the creation of a knowledge-based index. He then was involved in the Acquisition of Meta-Web , which ended up bringing a number of new search engineers to Google focused upon Semantic Web Technology.

Google has had other people involved in bringing knowledge graph technology to the search engine, including their Head of structured search Alon Halevy, who was involved in The WebTables project that is being used for query refinements in response to different queries and Google's Structured Snippet, which enrich snippets with content from tables found on pages that are being indexed. Also Google's Ramanathan Guha, inventor of Google Custom Search Engines, and Google Rich Snippets (his name is on the Google Blog post that introduced rich snippets to searchers.)

It's clear from that financial statement that the audience Google is responding to with queries are searchers and not site owners.

How about direct answers? Are they doing an adequate job or is there a great deal of room for improvement? Any particular niches you think Google is doing a better job at than others?

BS: Google has been increasing the number of direct answers they show searchers, and recently overhauled the medical answers they were showing searchers, improving those with input from people at the Mayo Clinic and with Google Medical Staff. A White paper that Google released on "How-to" type direct answers described how Google was using a Semantic Sense framework to try to understand the sources of such content better. See: Cooking with Semantics.

What do you make of the recently released research paper about "knowledge-based trust" as a ranking signal? Google has said it's not using this in search right now, but do you expect them to? Do you believe they should, and that it should carry more weight than links/PageRank?

BS: The team that released this Knowledge-based Trust paper seemed very familiar - Many of them were among the people releasing a paper on Google's Knowledge Vault, which identified a number of ways that Google could potentially improve the quality of information in Google's knowledge Base. If you were following along at the time that paper was released, it described a number of approaches that the knowledge graph could be improved, and people were talking about the knowledge Vault being a replacement for Google's Knowledge Panel at the time. They did describe a number or ways of improving the quality of information in the Knowledge Panel. As I look at more and more patents and papers about Google Knowledge, it does appear that "authoritiative source" information for things like direct answers are located based upon things involving Google's link graph, like the rankings of pages in response to certain queries, or how often those pages get clicked upon when they are displayed as a search result for a query that might be relevant to the topic of a direct answer. If that is how Google is selecting "authoritative" sources for answers, than using a Knowledge-based Trust approach doesn't sound like a bad way to go.

Roughly how many patents by your estimate does Google own that you can see directly applying to Knowledge Graph and related features? How many do you see specifically related to Knowledge-based trust?

BS: Questions like this one are why the idea of a Web where better use of Data on the Web might be helpful. Patents at the USPTO (US Patent and Trademark Office) are classified into different categories, but there's no easy way to sort those patents into those different categories. It would be nice if it were easier to use that classification data to answer a question like this one. Instead I'm left to try to guess. I've been searching for patents related to the Knowledge graph. There are a number that have been published at WIPO (The World Intellectual Property Office). I've written about a number of Patents published (released as patent applications or granted patents) by Google that directly apply to the knowledge graph, and there are some that I haven't written about because i had wondered how helpful it might be to write about them. The annotation Framework patents I mentioned earlier, there may have been around 30 or so, and there may have been at least as many others. I haven't seen any patents that I can say are specifically related to "Knowledge-Based-Trust, though it's possible that some may have been filed, and not yet made public by the USPTO or WIPO.

It seems like Google does a pretty good job (for the most part) of determining factual information for its own direct answers. It also seems like Google could apply some of this to KBT. Do you see KBT and the work Google has done with direct answers as related at all?

BS: It does seem like the Knowledge-based-Trust approach could lead to better direct answers.

In general, how much of what Google patents ends up being put to use in your estimation?

BS: There's so much range to what Intellectual property that Google attempts to protect with patents, that I think it's impossible to make that estimation. I don't usually spend too much time on patents from them that have little to nothing to do with search (unless they cover something like a cure for cancer).

Is Google's work with direct answers a serious detriment to webmasters or is this blown out of proportion?

BS: Google's work with direct answers appears to be a natural evolution of what searchers appear to want in search results - and make it more likely that searchers will continue to use a search engine to perform searches on Mobile devices and using spoken queries.

What are some search-related Google patents you've analyzed that you don't see Google utilizing, but that you think it should?

BS: It's difficult to answer this because it's sometimes hard to determine whether or not Google implemented some patents. Google announced recently that they would be taking action against doorway pages on site. I wrote a post about a Google patent granted in 2007 that was originally filed in 2003, that seemed like it addressed many issues related to doorway pages, and yet they are announcing they are going to come out with a new algorithm to address that problem?


Indeed they are. You can read more about that here.

Slawski recently wrote a series of posts about Google's Direct Answers, which if you should also take a look at. Those start here.

Do you want to see Google implement the Knowledge-Based Trust signal? Let us know in the comments.

Image via SEO by the Sea

Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.