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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wanna Rank? Upgrade Your Loafers

Based on the news that Google engineer Brian Merrill is leaving the company, I wandered around and got into reading Merrill's blog. A recent lengthy post attempts to alert us to the pitfalls of judging by outward appearances. Exactly the same person dressed in a different way on the BART (Merrill) is, well, exactly the same person. Yet he's better treated in nice loafers and a smooth shirt. (The real point of the post was to expose anti-Muslim prejudice.)

How ironic then that Google's latest Quality Raters Handbook has been making the rounds. As a search engine that prides itself on algorithmic approaches to ranking content, they sure seem to have a lot of people making judgment calls on site quality. Literally, raters are asked to "label" sites as "vital," "useful," "relevant," "not relevant," "off topic," etc. Also: "spam," "not spam," and "maybe spam."

Maybe this small army of raters gets it right a lot of the time, but the pain you'll feel if your site "looks like" one of these "off topic, maybe spam" sites, for example, could be severe. They can't rate all the sites and all the pages, so... machines are doing the work that bakes in some of these biases. It leads to much potential mayhem. Probably, it can't lead to corruption like Dmoz editor corruption, because raters are likely kept on a fairly short leash. They don't choose the sites/pages to rate so they probably can't go around upgrading pages that actually suck, to "relevant" or "vital." (To do that, you'd need to be higher up the food chain.)

Anyway...Malcolm Gladwell referred to this process of acting on a narrow information set as thin-slicing - this is a vital activity in our world. But equally important is the distinction between good rapid cognition and bad rapid cognition. When it goes bad, you have (for example) unhealthy prejudice - whether it be against a person or a particular type of website.

Is there a better way to weed out all the spam and arbitrage? I'm not sure. But that's the general environment we as marketers have to work with. Most of us are ill-prepared to do so because we don't generally assume search works this way - defensive, and all too willing to "label" pages as off topic or spam "until proven innocent."

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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