Info-tech

Google, up close

Updated on: Mar 06, 2011
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When in doubt, ‘Google it'. Even so, sometimes, you can't always find what you're looking for. This isn't necessarily because it isn't there, but because you're not searching correctly. This is where Daniel M. Russell comes in. As a Search Quality and User Experience expert in Google's Mountain View headquarters, he not only does ‘search research', but also conducts classes on how to make people better ‘searchers'. In an interview with the expert, we got some tips on how to become search wizards.

Google is a search engine that primarily offers intuitive results. What is your role as an expert on search quality?

My primary job is to discover what people believe and understand about Google. We've built this search engine that can do marvellous things that people can use everyday. The question we at the Googleplex really need to understand is this: How does an ordinary searcher think about his/her queries? How do they understand the results they get back? Is there some way we can improve that cycle (from typing in a query to getting your question answered)?

Do you give feedback that helps improve Google search, based on your day-to-day interactions with people?

Yes, when I go out on field visits, my goal is to understand all of the factors that make people value Google searches — including things such as our overall visual design, our search quality and factors such as response speed and messaging nuances. I bring these findings back to our search engineers and help them design and implement new tools, features, and technologies to address the pain points I observe in my studies. I also try to look for the implicit or “unasked” need. Those are the hardest for people to articulate (usually because they don't actually know they would want this capability!). As an example, before we launched the automatic spell correction feature, nobody asked for it. They just assumed that mistyping words was “the way-things-worked”. When we launched the spell corrector, it almost instantly became one of Google's most beloved features. It's now used a lot everyday, but nobody thought to ask for it!

What is the most frequent search quality issue that you are asked about?

Surprisingly, it's probably “why isn't my personal Web site at the top of the list when I search for my name?” In the past, people with common names such as “John Smith” or “Kumar Singh” would ask me this question, and I'd try to explain that there are lots of people with that name, and how would we know to pick out exactly your Web site? In such a case, I'd direct people to our Webmaster Guidelines to get suggestions about how to improve their ranking. For ordinary search, I also get asked “why do I get so many millions hits for a query?” The answer is obvious — because the World Wide Web is really, really big! But implicitly they're asking about how they can sift through so many potentially successful results. The answer is that you don't need to. Yes, your query for [cricket] will find 147 million results, but you don't have to examine every one of them! Google goes to a lot of trouble to bring the best possible hits to the top of the list, making sure that you don't need to look through all 147 million results by hand.

From the perspective of companies/organisations looking to improve their Web site hits, what are the tips that you give them to achieve this goal?

I'm not really a search optimisation specialist, but from my perspective as a search quality researcher, I would remind any webmaster that Google's goal is always to provide the most relevant information for a searcher's query. In other words, it is important to give visitors what they are looking for: useful information. Of course, we use all kinds of signals to help us rank pages, such as PageRank, which is a measure of how many other sites link to your site, so if you want really tactical tips, I would recommend exploring the resources we have on our Webmaster Central site, which offers tips on how to make it easier for Google to find your site, from design and content, to technical tips, to overall site quality.

With Bing and Yahoo as major competitors, how does Google distinguish itself from other search engines?

At Google, we focus on providing the best possible search experience for our users rather than getting into feature-by-feature comparisons, but I will say that we welcome competition that helps deliver useful information and gives people new choices. Having great competitors is a huge benefit to us and everyone in the search space — it makes us all work harder, and at the end of the day everyone benefits from that.

With regard to China, how does Google tackle situations when diplomacy restricts its reach?

I am not a expert on this but you can refer to our blog post about China. (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2010/06/

update-on-china.html)

How do Internet users improve their search?

I could go on for hours on this topic, but in the interest of time and space, I'll offer a couple of general tips:

Become familiar with the Web around you! You won't search for something if you don't know it exists. This sounds obvious, but it's really important on the Web, because many people don't realise all the different kinds of information you can find online. For example, did you know that you can search for 3D models of world landmarks, buildings, and monuments?

Explore Google's left-hand panel and advanced search options. The left-hand panel of Google's search results is a treasure trove of tools to help you refine your results to find exactly what you're looking for. For example, did you know that you can travel back in time to see exactly what people were talking about yesterday, last month, or a year ago, using the Realtime search timeline? Or did you know that if you're looking for expert advice on a specific topic, you can narrow your search results to discussion sites and forums to help you find an online community that shares your interests?

Keep learning! Like any skill, if you don't stay updated on the latest search features and tools, your skills will quickly become stale. Follow a favorite blog or tech reporter to make sure you find out about the latest and greatest search features as they happen. One blog that I find really useful to follow is the Official Google blog. I work here, but I can't possibly track everything that's going on throughout the company. But with this once-a-day-post I can follow all of the newly launched search features. It makes me just a bit smarter and more effective as a searcher every day!

ketaki@thehindu.co.in

Published on March 12, 2018

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