Google Approach to Making Online Ratings Easier…

Imagine going to a restaurant, and having a great experience. Or going to a great movie and wanting to tell others about it. Or trying out a new gadget and having problems with it.

You might tweet about it, and that seems to be something a lot of people are doing, especially with new movies. Imagine that you could take a picture of a barcode on your receipt or upon a box or package, and have a form come up which allows you to rate your experience or a product from 1 to 5 (bad to good), or assign a letter grade, or write comments. You might also upload pictures or audio or even video to include with your review. Your audio message might be one that you call in with your mobile phone.

Google published a patent application this week that describes a convenient way of providing ratings like this. The patent filing is pretty long, but one of the images accompanying the filing captures one aspect of the process pretty well:

patent document showing a picture of a barcode being taken from a barcode, a review form appearing after the image is uploaded, and the review becoming available online.

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The Anchor Text Sparsity Problem

If a search engine were to collect a list of links pointing to a page, and all of the text used in links to those pages (anchor text), it might be possible to learn a lot about the page being pointed towards by looking at the words used in those links. But what if there aren’t many links pointing to that page?

That’s the problem explored in a recent paper, Building Enriched Document Representations using Aggregated Anchor (pdf), by Donald Metzler, Jasmine Novak, Hang Cui, and Srihari Reddy, at Yahoo! Labs.

The authors of the paper refer to that problem as the anchor text sparsity problem, and they have come up with an interesting way to try to address the problem.

Here’s a simple example from the paper:

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Search Engines Applying Different Anchor Text Relevance from the Same Site and Related Site Links

Anchor text in a link pointing to a page is often used by search engines to determine what a page being linked to is about, and to determine what words and phrases that page is relevant for.

But, there are a number of issues raised when anchor text is used by search engines in that way. Here are a few of them:

  • If a page points two links to the same destination page using the same anchor text in both links (for example, in the navigation and the footer of the page), should the relevancy of that link text be weighted twice as much as if there were only a single link from the source page?
  • If there is a link on every page of a site to a single page of that site (a site wide link) using the same anchor text, should each of those links accumulate in weight to determine how relevant that page might be for the text used in those links?
  • If there are multiple links on a page to another page, or sitewide links to that other page, and the anchor text is different in each link, should the text in both links carry the same amount of weight in determining what the page being linked to is about?

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Evaluating the Relevancy of Search Results Based upon Position

The purpose behind SEO isn’t to outrank every other site on the Web for certain queries. The purpose behind SEO isn’t to draw large amounts of traffic to a web site.

Rather, the purpose behind SEO is to make it easier for people to find a site that they are interested in, that offers what they are looking for, and that meets some informational or transactional need that they might have.

Ranking number one in search results isn’t always the best place to be. Sometimes it’s better to rank number two, or even a little lower, especially if someone visits one or more of the sites above yours, and sees that those sites don’t deliver what you offer.

Case in point, a site that I’d been working on for years had been trading places between the number one and number two position in Google’s results with another site for a very relevant query term. When the site was at the number two position, it tended to get many more conversions from visitors than when it is at the number one position.

Both sites are very relevant for that specific query term. Both sites fulfilled visitors informational needs. But the other site didn’t actually provide services based upon that information, while the site I was working with did. Being number two seemed like a good place to be.

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Google Subscribed Links Patent: Why Do Some OneBox Results Require No Subscription?

The Google Onebox is a search result that sometimes appears below sponsored advertisements and above organic search results when you perform a search at Google. An example is when you perform a search such as a city name and the word “weather”. Google also offers specialized Google OneBox for Enterprise results for customers who use the Google Search Appliance or Google Mini.

onebox search result showing the weather forecast in the Richmond Virginia area.

It’s possible for you to create OneBox results for your own website, using a feature that appears to have originated with Google Coop. Google has a fair amount of documentation on the use of subscribed links, though it appears that the discussion group about subscribed links from that page has been removed from Google Groups for violations of “Google’s Terms Of Service.”

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A Taxonomy of Rewriting Search Terms

When I’m looking for information on a topic, I’ll rarely stop at one search regardless of how good or poor the information I find on the topic might be.

I’ll look at some of the results that I receive from my search, and possibly change the words I use in my search based upon what I see in those search results. Sometimes I’ll ignore those results and try out other terms. I might add a word or two to better focus my search, or remove some words to better target what I’m looking for. I might use an advanced search operator, such as a minus sign immediately in front of a word, to try to filter out some results that aren’t relevant to what I’m trying to find.

A couple of researchers from the University of Washington have published a paper to be presented at The 18th ACM Conference on Information and Knowledge Management (CIKM 2009) in November 2009, that takes a close look at how people search on the Web, and how those searchers might reshape and rewrite the query terms they use when trying to find information on a subject.

If you’re a searcher, knowing some of these strategies might help you find information on topics that you might be having troubles finding. If you’re a site owner, having some knowledge about how people search might help you think about how people might find your pages through search engines.

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Does the Ownership of Redirected URLs Matter to Search Engines?

Webmasters sometimes move web sites from one domain to another, change the URL structures pointing to their web pages, or rename those pages themselves.

Changing the URLs for pages isn’t something that should be done without a lot of thought, and without very good reasons. Especially if there are many links and references on the Web to the old URLs. See Cool URIs don’t change for a number of technical ideas on planning what to use for your URLs so that it’s less likely that you might need to change them.

Regardless, webmasters do sometimes change the URLs for pages found on the Web.

This can sometimes happen when the owner of a site decides to change its name, or to rebrand its products, or merges or acquires another site or business and wants to consolidate the web pages from the other site under one name. It can also happen when a blogger decides to change the permalink structure of their URLs. Sometimes product lines are renamed, and the sellers of those products want people looking for them to find the products under the new names. There are many other reasons why the URLs to pages change.

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Search Experiment Papers from Google’s Mad Scientists

We’re not often given too much insight directly into how a search engine like Google might check on the quality of their search results, and the algorithms that achieve those results. When we are, it can be interesting to look at some of the processes that their researchers might use, the assumptions that they follow, and the conclusions that they find.

What kinds of experiments would you perform if you were from one of the major search engines, and you wanted to compare two different algorithms that provided similar quality search results? Or you wanted to learn more about how people use the search engine, and if small changes might impact that use?

A couple of recent papers from Google describe experiments that the search engine performed.

Search Task Time and Searcher Satisfaction

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Getting Information about Search, SEO, and the Semantic Web Directly from the Search Engines