Posted by: structureofnews | November 5, 2011

Tuning The Algorithm

Google recently announced that it has updated its algorithm to return “fresher, more recent” results.  Is that a good thing?

As with all things Google, that really depends on what you’re expecting it to do.  It makes a lot of sense, after all, for the search engine to try to infer what you’re looking for – and a lot of the time, you’re looking for fresh information: Game results, movie listings, the latest news on Libya, etc.  As Google notes:

If I search for [olympics], I probably want information about next summer’s upcoming Olympics, not the 1900 Summer Olympics (the only time my favorite sport, cricket, was played). Google Search uses a freshness algorithm, designed to give you the most up-to-date results, so even when I just type [olympics] without specifying 2012, I still find what I’m looking for.

It’s almost certainly true that the people who are looking up information about next year’s Olympics outnumber the people looking up information about the 1900 Summer Games.   So going with the crowd is going to yield better results for more people.  And we’ve all had the frustrating experience of hunting down links on a Google search that are years out-of-date.  So more recent often means better.

But not always.  And that’s where Google seems to conflate the two:

Search results, like warm cookies right out of the oven or cool refreshing fruit on a hot summer’s day, are best when they’re fresh. Even if you don’t specify it in your search, you probably want search results that are relevant and recent.

Well, I certainly want relevant.  But sometimes relevant means old.   And if Google – a key entryway for finding information online – is prioritizing newness, then what does that mean in terms of discovering less frequently-updated but more valuable information?  As Suw Charman-Anderson noted in a post at Strange Attractor earlier this year, it’s already awfully hard to find old stuff on the web.  Will it get harder?

And that has real implications for us – not just users of the web, who don’t always need to find out the latest information but want the broader context of an event, but also for news organizations, which have already highly tuned to turning out updates at faster-and-faster speeds and much less savvy about how to extend the shelf-life of the content they create – whether through topics pages, archives, or rethinking basic story structure.  Pumping out more information at faster rates to game the new algorithm may be a great business model for some companies – but for most it’s a tough way to make money.

Of course, it’s not clear yet exactly how all this will pan out – and it’s not like the inner workings of Google’s algorithm are clear to any of us.  As the company notes, it’ll figure out when you want a year-old recipe rather than the latest sports scores, and tailor its results that way.  And more freshness in news is doubtless going to be valuable to many of us.   But prioritizing one thing means de-emphasizing something else, and we need to recognize that tradeoff will likely hurt at least one kind of news.


Responses

  1. Google probably should not have lead with that cookie analogy, making it sound like people always “want search results that are relevant and recent.”

    Thankfully, Google seems to understand that freshness is not always a top priority. They say that this algorithmic modification will affect about 35% of all searches.

    From lower in their post: “Different searches have different freshness needs. This algorithmic improvement is designed to better understand how to differentiate between these kinds of searches and the level of freshness you need, and make sure you get the most up to the minute answers.”

    • Kevin, it’s true that this should only affect a third of searches – but that may well be the third news organizations are most concerned with. The truth is, of course, that we don’t really know – it’s not like the algorithm is a model of transparency, so we’ll find out when we find out, I guess. And hopefully they’ll keep tuning it as feedback comes in and they see how well it works. But of course that also underscores how dependent news orgs are on them – although less so now that a lot of news discovery is being fueled by social media as well. Best, Reg


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