It's Crunch Time for Google's Battle Against Content Spam

Google search page
Google search page

Over the past few weeks some high-profile web personalities have vented their wrath at Google (GOOG) for what they claim were extremely spammy search results, particularly related to research on anything that can be purchased.

For the most part, I agreed with them. Like Paul Kedrosky, I had thrown up my hands and paid to get access to Consumer Reports when I needed to research a washer-dryer combo after finding the top pages and results in Google and other search engines awash in content that provided no insights. I also started using Blekko, Rich Skrenta's upstart search engine for some topics that I knew would be spammed out on the mainstream search engines.

I was also somewhat disappointed in Google's response to these concerns. It's main spam cop, Matt Cutts, basically said Google results were actually better than ever and that it would take some actions against the content farms that have usurped so much of prime search real estate with poorly written copy and advice articles that fail to provide any useful information. That's heartfelt and perhaps accurate in aggregate, but not enough to assuage the angry masses.

The Evolution of Google Search

But I guess that's why Cutts is more of an engineer while Don Dodge, another top Google manager, is considered an evangelist. And boy is he good at it. In an extremely well thought-out blog post, Dodge counters claims that Google's search results have remained the same for a decade and that the company has failed to innovate on search.

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He can talk about this, in part, because he was an executive at AltaVista, the leading search engine in the pre-Google era. With a series of screenshots, Dodge walks us down Memory Lane to the days when Google results only included text links, and then he proceeds through a series of subtle interface changes that slowly added more and more information including images, news stories, local phone numbers, maps and, most recently, real-time changes in results.

Dodge's contention? Google search rocks, and the changes have been so fluid and incremental that even the search mavens, let alone the general public, have barely noticed.

It's an interesting argument, and he tells a fine tale. And, to a degree, he's right. Two years ago I wouldn't have used Google Maps to search for directions to a meeting or for restaurant reviews or street views. A friend of mine who is a PR executive tells me Google Maps eliminated most of the complexity involved in scheduling media tours by enabling simple, multistop directions.

I used to go to AOL's (AOL) Moviefone to search for movie times. Now I can find them just as easily in Microsoft's (MSFT) Bing or Google. Image searches in Google and Bing are phenomenal and fast. So yes, we've seen huge improvements in providing specific types of information that is very easy to define and validate.

A Huge, Hairy Problem

Where the trouble still lies is the quality of information, and this is a thorny problem due to the subjectivity of "quality" in general. Search engines of all stripes fail to differentiate on quality. They do some policing of content spam, but the JC Penney incident reported by The New York Times illustrates clearly that even low-grade efforts to game search engines, if applied with enough brute force, can still gum up the system.

I'm not faulting Google or any search engine on this, either. Policing quality is a huge, hairy problem -- particularly since that's precisely what Google's original PageRank algorithm was designed to do by assigning quality votes to inbound hyperlinks.

It worked really, really well for a long time. It still works pretty well, but I'm hopeful that it can be substantially improved in the near future. Blekko is betting that human curation combined with a PageRank-style algorithm will create purer results. Google has traditionally not supported any type of curated solution, always betting on elegant computer code.

In the arms race against the spammers, the next few years could be crucial for the incumbent search leaders as pressure builds to build a better search mousetrap.

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