The Official Google Blog has recently written about changes to the ranking procedure that were introduced after a NYT article wrote about an online retailer that had apparently found out that being nasty to your customers would help getting good search rankings because all of the complaints and bad user reviews would get you links and boost PageRank. While Google denies that this logic would work, they have added a ranking layer to their search results that specifically targets online merchants. The interesting thing about the blog post is that the author details several things that the company could have done but didn’t do while actually revealing very little about what the “algorithmic solution” they implemented actually consists of. From the post:

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

While I do not believe that transparency is the prime solution to the gatekeeper issues surrounding search, this paragraph really is strikingly vague. Has Google compiled a list of merchants that are systematically downranked? How is this list compiled? What does “in our opinion” mean? Is this “opinion” expressed in the form of an algorithmic procedure (one could imagine using the hReview microformat to collect reviews on merchants)?

We’ll probably not get any answers to these questions but the case really shows how murky the whole ranking thing really has become: in an always growing online world, search visibility has extremely important financial ramifications (despite the social media hype) and I believe that companies like Google will increasingly rely on human judgment as a complement to algorithmic procedures (which are just another form of human judgment BTW). This will certainly lead to more legal activity around ranking in the future because courts still understand human meddling a lot better than software design…

Post filed under algorithms, search engines.

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