On Materiality and Search Engines

Search engines look at Relevance and its dynamic nature in ranking web pages. But there’s another element that’s important to consider when looking at how pages are ranked and ordered.

Materiality and Evidence

When evidence is introduced into a civil or criminal case, a judge not only weighs how relevant that evidence might be before it’s turned over to a jury, or before he or she considers it. The judge also decides how material that evidence might be.

For example, a defense attorney might try to introduce good character reference testimony in a case while defending a 30 year-old accused of murder. The testimony is relevant because it’s about the defendent. It goes to show something about him that a finder of facts might find useful. But, what if the person being offered to testify is the defendant’s kindergarden teacher? What if the teachers testimony is about how the defendant would always take his naps on time, played well with the other kids, and never showed signs of anger. While relevant, the testimony just really isn’t material. As testimony about the defendent from around 25 years earlier, it just isn’t that important.

A judge may also look at other factors in deciding whether evidence is material or important enough to enter into a case. One of these is called judicial economy. As an example, let’s say that our accused murderer from the last paragraph committed his crime in the middle of the infield at Yankee stadium in front of a crowd of 50,000 baseball fans. Almost everyone in attendence witnessed the crime. But you won’t see all 50,000 being summons to appear in court to testify. Their testimony is relevant, and material, but it doesn’t serve the best interests of justice to have that many people testifying if they are all going to give substantially the same testimony.

Another factor that a judge may consider while determining how important evidence might be is prejudice. A prosecutor wants to bring in evidence that our murder defendant was driving 10 miles over the speed limit and was given a citation, a week before the murder. This fact involves the defendant, and it’s a criminal act, but it really doesn’t show one way or another that the defendant might have committed the murder, and it might be prejudicial to have that brought before a jury. To have a jury think that the defendant is someone with a complete disregard for the law might prejudice them when it comes to deciding upon just the facts involving the murder itself.

Evidence in legal cases needs to be both relevant and material, and it needs to pass certain thresholds determined by a judge before it can be brought into a legal proceeding.

Materiality and Search Engines

Search engines also attempt to return results in response to queries that are both relevant and material. Sometimes those are referred to as query-dependent and query-independent signals. A query dependent signal includes some information about a query itself in determining a ranking score for a particular page. A query independent signal doesn’t take any specific query into account to determine a score for a page. The two types of scores can be combined to acheive a final ranking score.

An example of a query independent ranking signal is PageRank, which looks at the quantity and quality of links pointing to a page to determine how important that page might be. While some pages might have a very high PageRank score, like the home page of Google, that score won’t help them rank for queries that they just aren’t very relevant for.

Freshness is another area where materiality plays a role in determining scores for pages. Search Google for [microsoft windows] and you won’t see pages about Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows XP, or other older operating systems. Among the results you’ll see some generic pages about the topic, as well as a few pages about Windows 8. Like the character reference testimony from our kindergarden teacher in the murder case example, those results just aren’t very material.

A number of the patents from Google and Microsoft describe features of web pages that might go into a static ranking or a quality score for a page. These may involve a very wide range of features that could be found on a page, from the number of words, to a reading level, to page layout and even the locations of ads on a page, whether there’s a privacy policy, if there’s poor grammar, and others. They could also involve looking at things like how frequently a page acquires new links, or how frequently the content of a page changes over time. A Microsoft paper published last year referred to how credibility of a page might be used to re-rank search results as well.

Take Aways

The rankings of pages and other items (videos, images, news, books, music, maps) in search results may be based in part by how relevant they might be to a query as well as how relevance is being defined based upon the query used. Those rankings also can depend upon how material a result might be in combination with that relevance.

There are some types of ranking signals that combine both relevance and materiality such as a personalized PageRank, or a social reputation rank that might assign people reputation scores based upon topics that they contribute to social networks and interact with others on, and those reputation scores can play a role in the rankings of pages in social search results, and possibly in Web search results in the future as well.

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9 thoughts on “On Materiality and Search Engines”

  1. I agree with you about the “FRESHNESS” in the field of SEO. The example about the “microsoft windows” sounds perfect for this example. Between it is an interesting read.

    Enjoyed the other articles from you website as well.

    Keep sharing

  2. Bill,

    Thanks for pointing out that Page Rank will not help a web page to rank for queries that it is not relevant for.

    For some reason, there are tons of webmasters and SEOs that think that PR is the end-all-be-all of ranking.

    While it does help to have PR on a web pages as a sign of Google’s trust, a web page has to be relevant for a keyword to rank for it.

    The Google home page is a great example.

    Mark

  3. Love this stuff. Contemplating post on analogizing and contrasting Federal Rules of Evidence and search engine concepts of relevance, trust and popularity. Your posts are tremendously helpful. Here are a couple of the rules I’m considering including:

    Rule 401. Test for Relevant Evidence
    Rule 402. General Admissibility of Relevant Evidence
    Rule 403. Excluding Relevant Evidence for Prejudice, Confusion, Waste of Time, or Other Reasons
    Rule 404. Character Evidence; Crimes or Other Acts
    Rule 405. Methods of Proving Character
    Rule 406. Habit; Routine Practice
    Rule 608. A Witness’s Character for Truthfulness or Untruthfulness
    Rule 407. Subsequent Remedial Measures
    Rule 701. Opinion Testimony by Lay Witnesses
    Rule 702. Testimony by Expert Witnesses
    Rule 703. Bases of an Expert’s Opinion Testimony

    Considering whether to include rules from ARTICLE IX. AUTHENTICATION AND IDENTIFICATION & ARTICLE X. CONTENTS OF WRITINGS, RECORDINGS, AND PHOTOGRAPHS

    Any others you think might be worth considering?

  4. Hi Gyi,

    Sounds like the makings of a really interesting post. While I was writing the posts on relevance and on materiality and search engines, I couldn’t stop thinking of the role of Shepard’s Citations in the development of the citation analysis based PageRank.

    I like the choices you’ve listed of specific rules. I don’t think you need to go into Article IX and Article X unless you finish with the others and still want to keep on going.

    Should be a really interesting post.

  5. I agree with you about relevance. I just don’t understand some webmasters who spend time and money to send out a bunch of links and I never approve any of them. Now if somebody comments on my blog and it is 1. good comment and 2. their site or link they leave is relevant to my site, then I don’t mind so much.

    I don’t want any links on my site about personal finance or other issues.

    Basically while I think pagerank is good, I don’t think links to other sites that are completely different topics / niches will help a darn thing.

    This post was very well written.

  6. Bill, Nobody really understands how Google’s algorith operates exactly, however certain common sense points can be deduced from what Google tells us about what kind of information they are looking for.

    Links should be natural and not part of a bought link scheme etc. If a reader or visitor to a website likes a particular page, they will either promote this on their facebook/twitter account etc or link on a relevant page in the same industry niche. Your article reflects this common sense approach with evidence, yet millions of comments are left on websites every day that don’t even make sense, let alone be relevant to the content of the website. Why do they bother?

  7. Bill, Nobody really understands how Google’s algorith operates exactly, however certain common sense points can be deduced from what Google tells us about what kind of information they are looking for.

    Links should be natural and not part of a bought link scheme etc. If a reader or visitor to a website likes a particular page, they will either promote this on their facebook/twitter account etc or link on a relevant page in the same industry niche. Your article reflects this common sense approach with evidence, yet millions of comments are left on websites every day that don’t even make sense, let alone be relevant to the content of the website. Why do they bother?

  8. A very interesting post, as far as I understand (I am not native english speaking), especially the idea of materiality that brings a semantic dimension into the discussion, which always means very interesting and problematic at the same time.

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