Won’t Someone Think of the Links?

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Anything but the links!

This week Google’s search blog, Inside Search, announced a number of changes that were rolled out during February. Apparently one of them was about links. Unsurprisingly, this change was the one that received the most immediate attention, and generated the largest number of blog posts. Which is not too bad for a single paragraph that really does not say a lot:

Link evaluation. We often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page. We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years. We often rearchitect or turn off parts of our scoring in order to keep our system maintainable, clean and understandable.

More than just about a Link

Despite first impressions, there were other changes in the list of 40 updates. These include some related to image search, query freshness, spiking topics and news, as well as a range of language and product updates. While links were only mentioned in one update, image search was in four, and content freshness and emerging queries were covered in five.

Fresher, Timelier Results?

It was hard not to see intent in the changes relating to finding fresh content and identifying emerging search trends. With Search, plus Your World, and how Google has used Twitter in the past to power a real time search product, it is easy to assume that Google may be looking at using social and behaviour signals to modify rankings on a short time scale. The main updates that seemed to fit this were:

  • Interval based history tracking for indexing. [project codename “Intervals”] This improvement changes the signals we use in document tracking algorithms.
  • Disabling two old fresh query classifiers. [launch codename “Mango”, project codename “Freshness”] As search evolves and new signals and classifiers are applied to rank search results, sometimes old algorithms get outdated. This improvement disables two old classifiers related to query freshness.
  • Fresher images. [launch codename “tumeric”] We’ve adjusted our signals for surfacing fresh images. Now we can more often surface fresh images when they appear on the web.
  • Improvements to freshness. [launch codename “iotfreshweb”, project codename “Freshness”] We’ve applied new signals which help us surface fresh content in our results even more quickly than before.
  • Consolidation of signals for spiking topics. [launch codename “news deserving score”, project codename “Freshness”] We use a number of signals to detect when a new topic is spiking in popularity. This change consolidates some of the signals so we can rely on signals we can compute in realtime, rather than signals that need to be processed offline. This eliminates redundancy in our systems and helps to ensure we can continue to detect spiking topics as quickly as possible.

Once you assume that because these updates appear in the same document they must be related, the changes taken together seem to hint at refining systems for making search more responsive. The updates appear to touch on three different systems: methods for finding new content, methods for assessing a document’s changes over time and a method for identifying emergent search trends.

Building a Better Google News Service

To leave assumptions behind and take a flying leap towards baseless speculation, obviously Google intends to create a search experience capable of responding to spiking topics by altering the temporal range of the content in its results. A search query like ‘Brisbane Floods’ would be a good example.

Spiking Search Query

Prior to January 2011 the best results for this query would have been historic references, most likely to the 1974 floods. To be relevant and useful, the content would not have to be recent, and the results would not need to be temporally sensitive. In January 2011 that changed, and as the Brisbane River broke its banks, the 1974 floods were no longer the most relevant result for that query.

Anecdotally in Brisbane the sites in the SERPs did change in response to new information being generated, and to social media activity around certain sites driving link creation. This process occurred over a few days as the older content was replaced by news and a few purpose-built pages responding to the event. Imagine if Google could respond faster, and on a more personalised level?

Speculation isn’t very useful

However that is just speculation, and what’s worse, speculation in a vacuum. Google is on record saying it makes hundreds of changes to their search products every year, and just because a number of these changes happen close to each other in time does not mean they are related. It is worth reading Google’s blog post, even just to be aware of some of the more specific updates, such as the International Update to Shopping Snippets and improvements to their flight search product.

However, concluding that link building has changed forever on the basis of one vague paragraph of text, or concluding that Google will become a responsive news service, might be reaching a little too far.

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