Being something of a search weenie, as my eyelids were feeling heavy today I found myself mulling over the problem, “How would one detect Google spamming?”
The answer turns out to be surprisingly easy. Who has an incentive to spam Google? People living from advertising. Who owns the largest online display ad network? Google.
So, here’s the heresy: the spamminess of a web site is inversely proportional to its ad click-through.
Think about it — in a typical internet search, a navigation path terminating at that page is the best result. If they click on an ad, it probably means you missed serving up the right page in the first place. As a corollary, the pages best optimized to pull you in via a search term and send you back out via a related ad are among the worst results.
I’ve said for years that Google exists on the razor’s edge of a paradox: if their results are good, then web surfers will ignore the ads on the side and just click on the top search result. If their search results are good, then the top companies in each field will already be the top search results and won’t need to advertise. That means that the ones who do advertise will be the crappy companies in the field, so surfers will be further trained to ignore the ads. The result is that Google’s natural settling point is with results that are crappy enough to get people to look at the ads but not so crappy that users switch to Bing or something.
I don’t see how Google gets around this paradox. I kind of wonder if search isn’t one of those areas of natural monopoly that ought to be tightly regulated or dispersed into open source or something. Mickey Kaus recently predicted that Google will get itself sucked into some political controversy sooner or later, and I tend to agree that it’s inevitable. What result should you get when you search for “health care bill cost”? “Obama birth place”? That the answers to these queries are generated algorithmically doesn’t mean they’re neutral! There’s an old hacker koan:
In the days when the Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
“What are you doing?”, asked Minsky.
“I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe”, Sussman replied.
“Why is the net wired randomly?”, asked Minsky.
“I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play”, Sussman said.
Minsky then shut his eyes.
“Why do you close your eyes?” Sussman asked his teacher.
“So that the room will be empty.”
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.
The algorithm always has a bias.